Climate change effects on conflict, social unrest, health, mass migration, food, and national security

[ Since oil shortages from exponential decline rates of conventional oil will affect every aspect of civilization from farming to electricity to supply chains far harder and sooner than sea-level rise and other climate change problems, think “energy shortage” whenever climate change is mentioned below. Oil shortages can also arise suddenly from terrorism, war, blocking of oil tankers from key choke-points as well as declining imports as exporting nations keep more and more of their oil within their own country for their citizens. 

And when oil declines CO2 levels will begin to decline.  This is because oil is the master resource that makes all other resources available.  Conventional oil peaked in 2005, it’s highly unlikely unconventional deep ocean, tar sands, and fracked unconventional oil will be able to keep up with conventional oil rate decline (90% of our oil) and population growth, as soon as this year perhaps, and almost certainly by 2030. That means the dire predictions of CO2 increasing until 2100 are unfounded.  Anyhow, the one good thing about peak fossils now or soon is that we may be able to avoid a Permian-level extinction rate.  Though not, unfortunately, the ongoing 6th extinction as a still exponential birth rate forces human development to expand and pollute remaining (rain)forests, wild lands, wetlands, and other biodiverse habitat.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer]

National Research Council. 2013. Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis. Committee on Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change on Social and Political Stresses, J.D. Steinbruner, P.C. Stern, and J.L. Husbands, Eds. Board on Environmental Change and Society, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 253 pages.


How might climate change lead to new or increased risks to U.S. national security? Might it, for example, put new stresses on societies or on systems that support human well-being, such as supply chains for food or energy, and thus pose or alter security risks to the United States?

Unusually severe climate perturbations will be encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is a compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced,

This report has been prepared at the request of the U.S. intelligence community with these circumstances in mind. The U.S. intelligence and security communities have begun to examine a variety of plausible scenarios through which climate change might pose or alter security risks.

First, we focused on social and political stresses outside the United States because such stresses are the main focus of the intelligence community. Second, we concentrated on security risks that might arise from situations in which climate events (e.g., droughts, heat waves, or storms) have consequences that exceed the capacity of affected countries or populations to cope and respond.

Growth in peer-reviewed literature on climate stress and armed political conflict1980–2012


FIGURE 5-4 Growth in peer-reviewed literature on climate stress and armed political conflict, 1980–2012.

Events within the United States and those outside the country affect each other, indirect links between climate and conflict can be related to direct ones, and the effects of climate change will not stop beyond a 10-year horizon and, in fact, can be expected to increase at an increasing rate.

Many of these events will stress communities, societies, governments, and the globally integrated systems that support human well-being.

Conclusion: Given the available scientific knowledge of the climate system, it is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events as well as conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate. The climate surprises may affect particular regions or globally integrated systems, such as grain markets, that provide for human well-being. The conjunctions of events will likely include clusters of apparently unrelated climate events occurring closely in time, although perhaps widely separated geographically, which actually do have common causes; sequences or cascades of events in which a climate event precipitates a series of other physical or biological consequences in unexpected ways; and disruptions of globally connected systems, such as food markets, supply chains for strategic commodities, or global public health systems. The surprises are likely to appear first as unusually severe extensions of familiar experience.

Events of a magnitude that has not been disruptive in the past can cause major social and political disruption if exposure and susceptibility are sufficiently great and response is inadequate or widely seen as such.

Conclusion: It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events—including single events, conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being—will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response. It is also prudent to expect that such consequences will become more common further in the future.

Available knowledge is consistent with a model in which the link of climate events to the potential for significant violence, conflict, or breakdown depends on these factors:

  • the nature, breadth or concentration, and depth of pre-existing social and political grievances and stresses;
  • the nature, breadth or concentration, and depth of the immediate impacts of the climate event;
  • the socioeconomic, geographic, racial, ethnic, and religious profiles of the most exposed groups or subpopulations, as well as their susceptibilities and coping capacities;
  • the ability and willingness of the incumbent government and its internal and external supporters to devise, publicize, and implement effective, transparent, and equitable short-term emergency response and then longer-term recovery plans;
  • the extent to which emergent or established anti-government or anti-regime movements or groups are able to take strategic or tactical advantage of grievances or problems related to responses to the event;
  • the type, breadth, and depth of legitimacy and support for authorities, the government, the regime, or the nation–state; and
  • the coercive and repressive capacities of the government and its willingness and ability to engage and carry out repression.

Within the U.S. government, the entity charged with developing fundamental knowledge about climate vulnerabilities is the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).

Countries, regions, and systems of particular security interest should be prime targets for periodic stress testing.

No more than 12 to 15 countries will need to be monitored and subjected to periodic stress tests over the next decade, many of which are likely to be in critical, and often shared, watershed areas in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. If the criteria for importance to the United States are expanded to include foreign policy and humanitarian concerns, then the number of countries to be monitored and stress-tested regularly over the next decade may rise to between 50 and 60. Stress testing should also be applied periodically to global systems that meet critical needs, including food supply systems, global public health systems, supply chains for critical materials, and disaster relief systems.

This mission covers a broad range of risks. It includes possible military attacks on the United States, its allies and partners, and American facilities overseas, but it is much broader. The intelligence community is also responsible for assessing the likelihood of violent subnational conflicts in countries and regions with extremist groups, dangerous weapons, critical resources, or other conditions of security concern. It must also anticipate and assess various other risks to the stability of states and regions

How might climate change lead to new or increased risks to U.S. national security? Might it, for example, put new stresses on societies or on systems that support human well-being, such as supply chains for food or energy, and thus pose or alter security risks to the United States?

The assessment itself is still classified, but the methodology and principal conclusions of the report were presented in the statement for the record prepared in conjunction with testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

The National Intelligence Council also sponsored an extensive set of unclassified reports and conferences on the potential effects of climate change on key regions and countries; the materials may be found at http://www.

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas. The most frequently cited potential climate events include sea-level rise, the shrinking of glaciers and the Arctic icecap, an increase in extreme weather events, and increasingly intense droughts, floods, and heat waves. The scenarios and examples presented in the above reports address broad consequences for fundamental societal needs such as food, health, and water and also the likely implications for specific regions and countries. Although the reports generally agree that future climate events are likely to increase tensions and political instability within and between states and perhaps also increase internal conflicts, they do not forecast an increase in interstate conflict.

Statements About Climate and Security Connections from Previous Security Analysis

“Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.”

“[T]he United States can expect that climate change will exacerbate already existing north–south tensions, dramatically increase global migration both inside and between nations (including into the United States), spur more serious public health problems, heighten interstate tension and possibly conflict over resources, challenge the institutions of global governance, cause potentially destabilizing domestic political and social repercussions, and stir unpredictable shifts in the global balance of power, particularly where China is concerned. The state of humanity could be altered in ways that create strong moral dilemmas for those charged with wielding national power, and also in ways that may either erode or enhance America’s place in the world.” (Lennon et al., 2007:103)

“We assess that climate change alone is unlikely to trigger state failure in any state out to 2030, but the impacts will worsen existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions. Climate change could threaten domestic stability in some states, potentially contributing to intra- or, less likely, interstate conflict, particularly over access to increasingly scarce water resources.”

“Since climate change affects the distribution and availability of critical natural resources, it can act as a ‘threat multiplier’ by causing mass migrations and exacerbating conditions that can lead to social unrest and armed conflict.”

“While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas.”

“Climate change is likely to have the greatest impact on security through its indirect effects on conflict and vulnerability.”

“Climate change is not happening in a vacuum: in many areas of the world it will be accompanied by rapid population growth, resource shortages, and energy price increases. Analytically, it is difficult to separate the effects of climate change from other factors, such as food shortages, migration, ethnic tensions and other issues that could drive violence. However, the potential impacts of climate change on water, energy, and agriculture will make it a central driver of conflict. The impacts of climate change combine to make it a clear threat to collective security and global order in the first half of the 21st Century.”

Declines in food and water security are among the most frequently cited kinds of harm, and sub-Saharan Africa is often singled out as the region most likely to experience the greatest effects on security. For example, Fingar (2008) wrote: We judge that sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be the most vulnerable region to climate change because of multiple environmental, economic, political, and social stresses. . . . Many African countries already challenged by persistent poverty, frequent natural disasters, weak governance, and high dependence on agriculture probably will face a significantly higher exposure to water stress owing to climate change.

In some of the scenarios increasing food and water insecurity interact to increase risks to health. In others health risks result from changes in weather patterns that shift the ranges for vector-borne diseases. Several scenarios see such declines in food or water security or disease outbreaks as likely drivers of population migrations, both within and across borders, that result in political or social stress, usually in the countries that receive the immigrant populations.

Two of the most-often cited scenarios are increased flooding or a rise in sea level forcing millions of Bangladeshis into India and an increasing desertification and drought forcing people from northern and sub-Saharan Africa into Europe. In both scenarios immigration issues are already a source of major tension.

Energy security also figures prominently in several projected climate–security scenarios, in which climate change is seen not only as yielding potential benefits for natural gas and perhaps biofuels producers but also as increasing the vulnerability of countries and industrial systems that rely on imported fuel.

The paths envisioned from climate events to specific security consequences are often complicated. For example, tensions could increase over access to increasingly scarce resources, and that escalation, especially if it led to overt conflict, could in turn further limit access to resources so that people who had not previously been affected would now face shortages. Some scenarios suggest that diminished national capacity or outright state failure would create increasing opportunities for extremism or terrorism. Again, sub-Saharan Africa is often cited as the most vulnerable region. In addition to these specific scenarios, many of the reports foresee increasingly frequent and increasingly severe natural disasters that will strain the capacity to cope with the resulting humanitarian emergencies, both in the United States and overseas.

These climate–security analyses raise concerns about several security issues beyond those of inadequate adaptation leading to humanitarian disasters, political instability, or violent conflict.

One class of scenarios involves direct threats of climate change to the ability of the U.S. military to conduct its missions. An example is the threat that sea level rise, possibly in combination with more intense coastal storms, poses to naval bases in low-lying coastal areas. More generally, analyses foresee climate change having broad negative effects on military organization, training, and operations—for example, by exacerbating operational difficulties for troops and equipment in already difficult locations. Other concerns include the vulnerability of U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) fuel supplies to severe weather that disrupts supply lines and the possibility of droughts restricting access to water for forces and facilities overseas. Perhaps the most frequently cited security risk from climate change is the possibility of melting Arctic sea ice leading to increased international tensions over newly accessible sea routes and natural resources in the Arctic. A recent NRC study, addresses these and other security issues of interest to the U.S. naval forces.


It is now clear from an accumulation of scientific evidence that the risks of potentially disruptive climate events are increasing.

The rate of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere is now a factor of 10,000 greater than it was during any period on geological record prior to human civilization, and sea levels during prior interglacial periods with comparable average surface temperatures were substantially higher than they currently are. The unprecedented rate of carbon dioxide accumulation means that Earth’s climate system—and likely its ecological system as well—will continue to undergo a very large energy balance adjustment, possibly at an unprecedented rate. One can confidently expect that there will be significant consequences. Although we do not know the exact magnitude, timing, or character of all of these consequences, it is prudent to assume that some of them will appear as surprises in the form of unanticipated events that compel some reaction. National security decision makers do not like surprises and expect the intelligence community to provide sufficient warning to make it possible to avoid, ameliorate, or alter the undesired consequences of emerging developments.

Another factor limiting confidence in the projections of extreme climate events is that the fundamental attributes of Earth’s climate system have moved or very soon will move beyond the bounds of experience on which models are based. For example, the concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere are now greater than they have been for at least 800,000 year, and the current rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere is at least an order of magnitude greater than the natural rate that prevailed prior to the rise of human civilizations

As climate moves outside the range of experience, models of the effects of higher GHG concentrations cannot be validated against the kinds of high-resolution observational data that provide the most desirable basis for model testing.

Global average temperature already is or soon will be higher than it has been at any time in recorded human history, and it is increasing at an unprecedented rate

This does not mean that climate science has nothing to say about the future of extreme events that can be useful to the intelligence community. What it means is that there are multiple scenarios of the future of climate events that are each likely enough that they deserve consideration by the intelligence community. They should not be treated as predictions but rather as possibilities for evaluation in terms of the social and political scenarios they might set in motion, the security issues that might ensue, and the preparedness of the U.S. government to deal with the consequences.

In security policy the practice for deciding whether to take a hazard seriously is much different from the practice in making scientific claims. Security analysts are focused on risk, which is usually understood to be the likelihood of an event multiplied by the seriousness of the consequences if it should occur. Thus security analysts become seriously concerned about very high-consequence negative events even if scientists cannot estimate the probability of their occurrence with confidence and, indeed, sometimes even if they are fairly confident that the probability is quite low. During the Cold War, for example, most people thought that deterrence was robust, and few thought the likelihood that the Soviet Union would actually initiate a nuclear attack against the United States was anything but minuscule. But because the consequences would have been so dire, tremendous efforts were made by the intelligence and national security communities to monitor events that might provide early warning of the possibility of such a strike. The same is true of threats of terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland today. Even though there have been few terrorist attacks altogether—and no major ones on the United States since 2001—substantial resources are allocated to identifying threats and reducing risks.

The kind of process that could lead to surprising and very extreme events can be drawn from evidence in the paleoclimate records combined with recognition of enhanced polar temperature variations due to changes in GHG concentrations. Citing an observation by Bintanja et al. (2005) that over the past 800,000 years a 1°C increase in global mean temperature was associated with increased equilibrium sea levels of about 20 meters, Hansen and Sato (2012) have suggested that the sea level rise in the next century may well be on the order of 5 meters. They argue that an increase of 3.6°F (2°C) over pre-industrial temperature levels, which is highly likely to occur in this century, would commit the planet to sea level rise of many meters. Given the considerable uncertainty in the science of glaciology about the stability of major ice sheets, it is unclear whether their contribution to sea level rise over the next century will be linear or will follow a nonlinear trajectory with an increasing rate of change over time. If nonlinear processes prevail, then the common projection of up to 1 meter by the end of the century may be a lower bound rather than an upper bound. The rate at which the sea level rise would occur is critically important, of course, in terms of the social and political consequences.

To better evaluate the import for U.S. national security of scenarios like this, which have some scientific plausibility but which extend beyond the current scientific consensus, the intelligence community might benefit from several types of knowledge that could be developed in the coming decade to help analysts anticipate security issues that might arise if such a scenario is realized.

These would include improved measures of rates of change in temperature and glacier ice cover in the polar regions; the use of existing climate models to project how this degree of ice melting would affect such outcomes as coastal inundation, extreme precipitation, and cyclonic storm severity; and assessments of the exposure, vulnerability, and response capacity of key countries and regions to these outcomes. Several other examples of potential rapid-onset extreme climate event scenarios can readily be found. For instance, models of changes in the Indian summer monsoon indicate that several sharply different but potentially dangerous shifts in the intensity of the monsoon are plausible, with the changes possibly occurring with a transition time of only a year or so. From a security perspective it may make sense to take each of the model-projected futures through a what-if scenario mode. Similarly, projections of the West African monsoon point to a Sahel (the east–west stretch of Africa south of the Sahara desert and north of the Sudanian savannahs) that is either wetter or drier or else has no average change in rainfall but has a doubling of the number of anomalously dry years—three scenarios that could be examined in terms of their social and political implications.

The expanded use of nuclear power in some countries to replace fossil fuels could increase risks of nuclear proliferation. Some policies to increase biofuel production could contribute to food price spikes and thus reduce effective food availability to low-income populations around the world. A single country’s decision to counter global warming by geoengineering, perhaps by fertilizing the ocean to grow photosynthetic organisms or by injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere, could create conflict with other countries.

An upstream country might impound water from a river to guard against drought and thus reduce water supplies for its downstream neighbors. Or one country might purchase land in another country to produce food for its domestic consumption, creating conflict if a future food shortage hits the country where the food is being produced for export.

Our study focuses largely on developments and vulnerabilities external to the United States, a drought in U.S. agricultural areas that led to a spike in the global price of corn or wheat could lead indirectly to a humanitarian or political crisis elsewhere that could become a national security issue for the United States. Our study does examine such scenarios, but it does not examine the social and political consequences such events might have within the United States, nor does it examine the social and political consequences within the United States of climate events occurring elsewhere that disrupt global systems such as public health or the supply systems for critical commodities.

We emphasize, however, that such a separation between domestic and foreign impacts reflects only the division of missions among federal agencies, not the characteristics of climate phenomena or their consequences.

People and societies depend for their lives and well-being on a number of complex and interrelated systems that may be affected by climate variability and change. The most important systems are those that meet critical human needs by protecting health and providing water, food, energy, shelter, transportation, and essential commercial products. Each of these human life-supporting systems is affected by physical and biological systems, including climate, and by the socioeconomic and political conditions that

organize how people and societies interact with those systems to meet their needs. It is important to recognize that some human life-supporting systems, including international disaster assistance, protections against pathogens, and markets for key commodities such as grains and petroleum, are global. This means that climate-related events anywhere that affect these systems have the potential to create disruptions elsewhere on the planet.

Disputes about the proper attribution of the events can themselves contribute to social disruption. For example, between 2010 and 2012 Pakistan experienced a series of electrical blackouts and shortages of irrigation water, both attributable in part to decreased flows in the Indus River. The decreased flows occurred in the context of a long-term decline in per capita water availability, which by 2010 was less than a third of what it had been in the 1950s as a result of the increasing demands for irrigation water to feed a rapidly growing population, inefficient drainage practices, and possibly inequitable water allocation between regions and uses. Drought arrived on top of these stresses. Protest demonstrations and riots occurred with increasing frequency and intensity during 2010 and 2011, tied mainly to the power blackouts. The blackouts and water shortages themselves were disruptive enough, but, in addition, their cause became a contentious political issue with the potential to inflame Pakistan–India relations. The Pakistani foreign minister blamed the decreased flows on illegal water withdrawals upstream by India.

A simple example is the growing risk to human populations in coastal areas from storm surge and sea level rise. Climate and environmental change are exposing more land to these hazards, but in many regions rapid population growth and infrastructure development resulting from birth rates exceeding death rates, net migration, and economic development are putting people and property in harm’s way faster than climate and environmental change alone.

In many developing countries economic development and urbanization are making large populations less dependent on subsistence agriculture and local food supplies. This trend will decrease these populations’ vulnerability to extreme climate events affecting local crops and meat supplies. At the same time the dependence of low-income populations on imported food supplies provided by global markets may increase their vulnerability to climatic or economic events in other parts of the world that sharply increase the prices of the foods they have come to depend upon.

Disaster researchers point out that both “social capital” in the affected communities and formal emergency response institutions and infrastructure play important roles in mediating the net degree of loss, disruption, and stress that result from extreme environmental events, including climate events. Effective response also depends on the economic and other resources available to the governments of the affected populations and on the governments’ allocation of those resources. Whether or not climate events become social and political stresses serious enough to destabilize a government or generate violent conflict may depend on whether or not governments’ disaster response efforts are perceived to be under-resourced, poorly managed, or characterized by favoritism, corruption, and lack of compassion.

Thresholds or tipping points have received much attention in the literature of physical climate science. In Chapter 3 we discuss evidence on the likelihood, in the next decade, of crossing important physical thresholds that could lead to a sharply altered climate regime. Less commonly examined are the ways in which changes in human systems might sharply alter vulnerabilities and thus contribute to the potential of even small climate events to have major impacts. Such changes could contribute to social and political stresses.

Relatively slow climatic, ecological, or economic changes can shift the balance of supply and use of natural systems at a local or regional level to the point that adequate supply can be achieved only with favorable climate conditions. The effects may not be noticeable until an unusual climate event occurs,

Increasing Dependence on Global Markets

Economic development in most countries has generally been marked by a pattern in which livelihoods depend decreasingly on subsistence agriculture and the local manufacture of essential products and increasingly on wage labor and the purchase of necessities in global markets. This transition usually includes a rural–urban shift in national populations as well. Historically, these changes have tended to decrease vulnerability of food supplies to local climate events because when destructive climate events occur locally, necessities can be purchased from places where such events have not occurred. But while direct vulnerability to events that limit local food production has decreased, vulnerability, especially of the lowest-income groups, remains and may be increased with respect to events that limit distribution or that sharply increase prices in global markets for necessities that cannot be acquired locally. Economic globalization thus changes the nature of vulnerability to climate events as well as the degree of that vulnerability. With globalization, populations become increasingly interconnected via international trade so that it becomes possible, for example, for a climatic event that affects one of the world’s grain-producing regions to influence global commodities markets in ways that can seriously affect populations that do not directly experience the climate event. In this way the well-being of households in Lagos or Nairobi can be sharply affected by a drought in Ukraine or the United States.

Climate change can alter the ranges of certain species of pests or pathogens, increasing the exposure of human populations or economically important nonhuman species. The expansion of the pine bark beetle in North America is a familiar example. As average temperatures in the region increased, making additional areas suitable for beetle infestations, the beetle expanded its range northward and toward higher elevations (Carroll et al., 2003). The ecological change did not become seriously disruptive to human populations until the increased prevalence of dead trees combined with drought and hot weather to produce major wildfires that affected populated areas.

climate change wildfire usa












FIGURE 3-2 Map of increased risk of fire in the western United States as a result of rising temperatures and increased evaporation. The figure shows the percentage increase in burned areas in the West for a 1.8°F (1°C) increase in global average temperatures relative to the median area burned during 1950–2003. For example, fire damage in the northern Rocky Mountain forests, marked by region B, is expected to more than double annually for each 1.8°F (1°C) increase in global average temperatures. With the same temperature increase, fire damage in the Colorado Rockies (region J) is expected to be more than seven times what it was in the second half of the 20th century. SOURCE: National Research Council 2011a.

Slow climate change could potentially have similar effects on the evolution or distribution of human pathogens (influenza, yellow fever, etc.) or of pests of major crop or livestock species. When one of these pests or pathogens makes contact with a vulnerable population, epidemics, epizootics, or crop failures can spread rapidly, leading to major losses of human life and well-being. Slow processes of ecological change or slow changes in the resistance of host populations to disease organisms could lead to the crossing of a tipping point in vulnerability, at which point the meeting of pest and host populations can set off a highly disruptive chain of events.

Policy makers have limited cognitive bandwidth, so they can pay attention to only so many warnings.

Risk is typically defined as the severity of an undesired outcome multiplied by the likelihood of its occurrence. Climate change alters both the likelihood of occurrence and the likely severity of certain events that may degrade human life-supporting systems. Changes in these systems may in turn alter the likelihood and severity of social disruption, stress on political systems, and events of potential importance to U.S. national security—violent internal or international conflict, state failure, and so forth.

The security risks posed by climate change are multidimensional. The overall risk may depend on attributes of: Climate events: 1. Types of climate events (e.g., floods, crop failures, and disease outbreaks)

Earth’s climate provides the environment in which humanity has evolved and in which human societies have expanded and thrived. It also periodically generates events that disrupt those societies—in some historic cases, apparently causing the failure of entire civilizations, although in many of those cases considerable dispute exists about the precise cause.

The fundamental science of climate change suggests that continued global warming will increase the frequency or intensity (or both) of a great variety of events that could disrupt societies, including heat waves, extreme precipitation events, floods, droughts, sea level rise, wildfires, and the spread of infectious disease. Underpinning many of these extreme events is an acceleration of the global hydrological cycle. For each 1.8°F (1°C) increase in the global mean surface temperature, there is a corresponding 7 percent increase in atmospheric water vapor. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cool air, this leads to more intense precipitation. Essentially, warm air increases evaporation from the ocean and dries out the land surface, providing more moisture to the atmosphere that will rain out downwind. Water vapor is also a powerful naturally occurring greenhouse gas. As such it is the source of a very strong positive feedback to the coupled climate system that amplifies any external forcing by a factor of approximately 1.6.

Severely burned forest lands are also more prone to erosion in storms, indicating that forest fires increase the risks of soil degradation and of mudslides.

Climate change may thus be playing at least four different roles in this dynamic: It promotes bark beetle infestations, weakens trees, dries the environment, and creates weather conditions conducive to fire outbreak. These conditions, connected in sequence, increase the risks of major forest fires and their hydrological and human consequences.

Climate events occurring in one part of the world have the potential to affect other parts of the world through important, globally integrated systems other than climate itself. One example is the potential influence of climate events on the world supply—and therefore the prices—of international traded commodities, such as grains. By this mechanism an event such as the 2012 drought in the central United States, still developing as this is being written, could affect world corn or wheat prices in ways that make essential foods unaffordable for populations in Africa or Asia.

Constraints on the availability of humanitarian aid for a country because aid providers are responding to situations elsewhere in the world. Yet another would be a climate event that altered the distribution of a major pathogen affecting people or staple crops. These examples, which are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4, indicate that there are numerous ways in which climate events could create shocks to integrated global social, economic, health, or technological systems and thus have effects far removed geographically from where the events occur.

A special focus should be on quantifying risks of events and event clusters that could disrupt vital supply chains, such as for food grains or fuels, and thus contribute to global system shocks.

Bread or flour are often subsidized, demonstrations and even riots frequently occur in response to efforts by governments to reduce subsidies, for example as part of structural adjustment policies. In general these disturbances are contained without an impact on the regime, even if there may be significant violence or property damage. The issue with regard to climate change is whether that pattern could change and that the countries most vulnerable to food price increases could become vulnerable to severe social and political unrest. Unfortunately, there is very little in the peer-reviewed literature concerning the links between food price increases and political unrest. One notable exception is a recent working paper that presented an econometric analysis of global data since 1990 and found that high food prices were significantly correlated with political unrest related to food prices, with the latter measured by counting the number of news stories with at least five mentions of terms related to food and riots (or their synonyms). Interest in the topic has increased in recent years, particularly within the community concerned with food security, spurred on by the question of whether rising food prices played a role in sparking the unrest of the “Arab Spring” of 2011. It is worth noting that the rapid food price increases in the MENA during this period were not driven by local weather conditions, but by events around the world including a severe heat wave in Russia. A report by Lagi et al. (2011) notes that clusters of unrest in the MENA region in 2008 and early 2011 both began immediately after the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization food price index passed a value of 210. Although they do not identify a causal link between high food prices and riots, the authors argue that a food price index value of 210 represents a simple potential predictor of increased unrest in food-importing countries. Breisinger et al. (2011) find that the unrest was preceded by a drop in food security across the MENA, and Ciezadlo (2011) emphasizes the role that food subsidies have played in popular attitudes toward regimes throughout the region. Johnstone and Mazo (2011) draw connections between climate events (which reduced global food production in the years preceding 2011) and the uprisings, describing climate change as a potential “threat multiplier” in the case of already unstable situations. All of these analyses are careful to note that drawing direct causal links between food prices and political instability is not possible, but they argue that food prices must be considered along with political and cultural factors in explanations of the uprisings.

Possibilities for energy system shocks to have global impacts in the coming decade lie primarily in the petroleum sector. The integration of petroleum markets was stimulated by desires to safeguard the supply of oil from manipulation by political actors in the wake of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoes in the 1970s. A consequence of this integration was that by the 2000s the petroleum system had become so complex and interconnected that, as one study concluded, “a disruption in one part of the infrastructure can easily cause severe discontinuities elsewhere in the system”.

Furthermore, the sensitivity of the system has increased because of a rapid growth in global petroleum consumption that has not been matched by a corresponding increase in production. The result has been an extremely tight market, with petroleum supplies not significantly greater than demand. This “demand shock”, led by the emerging economies in China and India, has left global markets volatile and very sensitive to disruptions in supply.

In this tight, sensitive market, climate events that disrupt the production or distribution of oil could lead to price spikes across the global energy market. Several types of climate events could cause such disruptions. Tropical storms and the increased storm surges that result from sea level rise and, in some cases, land subsidence, can disrupt production, refining, and transport of petroleum. One-third of U.S. petroleum refining and processing facilities are located in coastal areas vulnerable to storms and flooding. Similar infrastructure vulnerabilities exist in Europe and China as well. In addition, because offshore oil and gas platforms are generally not designed to accommodate a permanent rise in mean sea level, climate-related sea level rise would disrupt production. The effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 illustrate this potential. The storms disrupted oil and gas production from offshore rigs, refining at facilities in the coastal zone, and transportation via port facilities and pipelines, causing a spike in global prices. The pattern repeated, although with a smaller magnitude, when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit the Gulf Coast region in 2008, destroying drilling rigs and disrupting refineries. Other climate events could also affect the global oil market. Oil refining requires large amounts of water for cooling purposes; hence, reduced water availability during a drought would reduce refining capacity. If drought is accompanied by increased temperatures, refineries will require more cooling water to operate, potentially exacerbating the situation. Also, Arctic energy infrastructure (pipelines and drilling operations) is vulnerable to damage from subsidence caused by melting permafrost.

There has been some analysis of their potential macroeconomic effects. Hamilton (2003, 2008), reviewing six decades of oil price and macroeconomic data, reported a very strong relationship between oil price shocks and recessions. To the extent that economic disruptions drive political instability, it is plausible that an oil price shock could increase instability, particularly in a situation that is already politically sensitive. However, little research to date has directly addressed the political impacts of energy price shocks, whether caused by climate-related supply disruptions or other factors. These possibilities deserve more careful empirical analysis, particularly as energy markets continue to tighten with increased consumption from Asian nations and as risks increase of climate events disrupting energy supplies.

Strategic Product Supply Chains

Over the past few decades the globalization of many industries has been accompanied by a streamlining of their supply chains in order to reduce costs. However, as a 2012 World Economic Forum publication noted, “the focus on cost optimization has highlighted the tension between cost elimination and network robustness—with the removal of traditional buffers such as safety stock and excess capacity” (p. 10). Climate events can thus be a source of major disruptions in world markets for critical non-food commodities. Such events are counted as one of the major risks to be addressed in the U.S. National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security, released in January 2012 (White House, 2012).

The floods in Thailand in 2010–2011 illustrate how an extreme climate event that stresses a government’s ability to respond can have global consequences. Much of Thailand, including portions of the capital Bangkok and its surrounding manufacturing districts, was flooded for extended periods between July 2011 and January 2012. The flooding resulted in more than 800 deaths, affected 13.6 million people, damaged 7,700 square miles of farmland, and caused more than $45 billion in economic losses. Resistance appeared in some localities where flooding had increased due to barriers designed to protect neighboring communities. Some people ripped down the sandbags that they saw as unfairly diverting flood waters to their areas.

The floods also caused significant disruption to regional and global supply chains. Manufacturing parks located near Bangkok supply parts for the worldwide automobile and electronics industries. One-third of the world’s hard drives and high percentages of other key computer components are built there. Many of these Thai manufacturing areas were covered by up to 3 meters of water, causing parts shortages worldwide. Even the computer firms located elsewhere in Thailand that escaped the flooding found they could not get critical parts. Production is not expected to fully recover until 2013. In the meantime, component prices rose as suppliers attempted to stockpile what was available and manufacturers found they could not get the parts they needed. The flooding of automotive parts production facilities forced Honda and Toyota to slow production lines in many countries.

A study by Dell et al. (2012) found that a 1°C rise in temperature in a given year increased the probability of “irregular” leadership transitions (such as coups) in poor countries.

Traditionally, the primary security concerns of the United States and other nations have included the prevention of external assault, the prevention of insurrections and other large-scale domestic violence, and the maintenance of the political and economic stability of the state. U.S. national security concerns also extend to similar threats faced by our allies and by other states considered to be of critical importance for our national security. Other situations, such as major humanitarian crises, pandemics, or disruptive migration, which may threaten the stability of U.S. allies or other states and perhaps lead to a direct U.S. response, are also increasingly considered part of the landscape of potential security risks.

Water is essentially irreplaceable. With other resources, such as energy and food resources, there are a number of substitutes that can be used to meet the societal needs for these resources. Currently, however, water can only be replenished at costs that are beyond the reach of many of the most water-stressed countries. Conflict over water availability or caused by issues related to delivery of water resources to meet competing needs of energy, food, and health thus have the potential to define critical climate-related conflicts and relief challenges across the globe.

The agricultural sector is currently responsible for around 70% of freshwater consumption.

“There are 263 rivers around the world that cross the boundaries of two or more nations”. In total, these river basins account for just under half of Earth’s land area, are home to 40% of the world’s population, and make up some part of 145 countries. A number of these basins—the Indus, Nile, Tigris–Euphrates, Jordan, Brahmaputra, and Amu Darya river systems, for example—are in areas of strategic importance for the United States. “In addition, about 2 billion people worldwide depend on groundwater, which includes approximately 300 transboundary aquifer systems”.

In defining migration, a distinction is typically made between internal migration, which entails population movement within a country, and international migration, where population movement extends across international borders. It is also important to keep in mind other features of population movement, such as whether it is temporary or permanent and whether it is voluntary or forced. Even within these different categories, migration can take a variety of forms, including: temporary or permanent displacement of a population following some type of climate event or other disruptive event, such as a tsunami or nuclear accident; forced or voluntary migration out of an area of political or military conflict; temporary or permanent relocation of a population from an area threatened by flooding or inundation; and temporary or permanent movement from one region or country to another for economic opportunity.

Given the emphasis in this report on climate change and U.S. national security, we are particularly interested in a specific type of migration, which we term “disruptive migration.” Disruptive migration, which may be internal or international, generally involves large-scale movements of populations that are socially, economically, or politically disruptive, either in the area of origin, the area of destination, or in sensitive border regions that may be affected by population movements.

Climate change may constitute a direct environmental driver of either temporary or permanent migration via its effects on the availability of ecosystem services including, for example, the supply of freshwater, which may change under altered rainfall regimes; coastal flood protection, which may be lost as the result of sea level rise; and changes in the productivity of agricultural lands as a result of changes in temperature and precipitation regimes. Climate change may also affect the likelihood of droughts, coastal storms, and other types of hazardous climate events, which may temporarily or permanently displace susceptible households. Climate change may indirectly contribute to migration, whether temporary or permanent, via effects on economic, political, and social drivers. For example, climate change may influence agricultural and natural resource–related livelihood opportunities in a particular region, or it may contribute to political conflicts within a region over water or other resources.

Climate change–related threats to human security may be just as prominent in areas of migration destination, particularly urban ones that receive large numbers of immigrants, as in areas of emigration. Migrants into new areas may also place strains on governmental or other resources and may potentially contribute to new types of conflicts, particularly within receiving areas that are already under social stress

Migration typically requires a significant outlay of financial resources, yet actions needed to cope with environmental changes (e.g., selling land or livestock) can reduce a household’s assets to the point that family members who could adapt by migrating may not have the resources to do so. Those households or individuals who cannot migrate out of a region that is undergoing environmental change are among the most vulnerable (Black et al., 2011c). Regions with large concentrations of “trapped” populations that are unable to migrate may pose a new type of human security threat. When an extreme climate event occurs, these “poorest of the poor” may end up trapped in environmentally degraded areas.

The Political Instability Task Force (PITF) is an ongoing and unclassified research program funded by the Central Intelligence Agency that began work in 1994 as the Task Force on State Failure, a panel of academic scholars and methodologists. Its original task was to assess and explain the vulnerability of states around the world to political instability and state failure, focusing on events like the collapse of state authority in Somalia and the former Zaire and other onsets of disruptive regime change, civil war, genocide and mass killing, and onsets and terminations of democratic government.

Extreme political instability has generally not explored potential climate–security connections. As the Bates (2008) and Marten (2010) reviews make clear, most of the efforts to understand the origins of state failure focus primarily on economic factors, various forms of ethnic divisions, and the state of democratization in a particular country.

One literature that does provide a more detailed exploration of potential climate–security links is the literature on the potential political impacts of disasters. Its findings generally support the conclusion that climate events that trigger disasters of various types are associated with political instability, although not in a straightforward way. The relationships, including causes and effects, are highly complex and contingent. The overall analytic challenge was well captured in a recent review of detailed analyses of several major disasters of the past, including some that led to state failures (Butzer, 2012). The review found that in many, but not all, instances, states survived the calamities, and it cautioned against drawing too straight a line between disasters and state failures, noting that state breakdowns differ because of the “great tapestry of variables” involved.

The scenarios in which climate events are most likely to lead to risks to U.S. national security are in countries of security concern that have a significant likelihood of exposure to particular climate events combined with susceptible populations and life-supporting systems, weak response capacity, and underlying sources of potential political instability. Pakistan offers a case that illustrates these points particularly well, as described below.

Of the many places in the world where climate dynamics might induce globally consequential disruption within a decade, Egypt is a principal possibility. Egypt’s population of some 80 million people consumes 18 million tons of wheat annually as a dietary staple, half of which is imported, with virtually all the rest dependent on water from the Nile River. The Nile flows through Sudan and Ethiopia before entering Egypt and accumulates nearly all of its volume upstream. The production of wheat and other food crops supported by the river is being burdened by population increases in all three countries. The countries’ current combined total of 208 million people is projected to reach 272 million by 2025, presumably generating an increase in agricultural production demand on the order of 30% or more within the watershed. In addition South Korea and Saudi Arabia have purchased large tracts of land in the watershed to assure imports for their own populations, and that will also add to the demand for water.

Pakistan is at risk

Pakistan presents a clear example of a country where social dynamics and susceptibility to harm from climate events combine to create a potentially unstable situation. Pakistan’s economy depends heavily on water from the Indus River, and competition for this water is increasing. Therefore, Pakistan’s political and economic systems may be vulnerable to hydrological changes in the Indus system such as have been observed recently and which may be affected by climate change and variability at a subcontinental scale. Agriculture is a central component of the Pakistani economy. The sector accounts for 21% of annual gross domestic product (the second-largest fraction by sector) and is by far the largest source of employment, employing 45% of Pakistani workers.

These percentages do not capture the dependence of other sectors on agriculture. Much of the agricultural production feeds domestic industry, particularly the cotton grown for the country’s large textile industry. Textiles and clothing make up a very large portion of Pakistan’s exports—approximately 50% in recent years—thus representing the country’s most important source of foreign currency.

Given the low levels of rainfall in the agricultural areas of the country, Pakistan’s agricultural sector relies heavily on irrigation. The ratio of area of irrigated to rain-fed agricultural land is 4-to-1, the highest ratio worldwide. Water for irrigation is drawn primarily from three storage reservoirs on the Indus, making this crucial economic sector highly dependent on adequate flows in the Indus system. Further stressing the Pakistani water system, demands for water for agricultural, domestic, and industrial uses are increasing. Agricultural production is intensifying, shifting from subsistence crops to commodity crops (mostly cotton, sugarcane, and rice) that produce more output but require more water; manufacturing activity is increasing as a share of the economy; and population growth, especially in urban areas, is requiring more withdrawals of Indus water for domestic consumption. Also, hydroelectric power provides 37% of Pakistan’s electricity, mostly from reservoirs also used for irrigation-water storage, creating competition for water resources between agriculture and energy,

Protests over power outages, although not new in Pakistan, have led to increasing civil unrest over the past five years. With the onset of a sweltering summer, power shortfall hit a record high of 8,000 megawatts in 2012, or nearly 45% of national demand, leading to 18 to 20 hours per day of power outages and stoking riots and mass-scale protests. Reports from the ground recorded violent protests throughout the country. In a recent episode of escalating violence, rioters burned trains, damaged banks and gas stations, looted shops, blocked roads, and, in some instances, targeted homes of members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies. According to a senior local police officer in the largest city, Karachi, on average there were at least six protests against power outages in the city per day in 2011. Competition between water uses is likely to increase if government plans are implemented to increase hydroelectric capacity as a cheaper alternative to imported fossil fuels. As a result of these demographic and economic changes, an already tight water supply is becoming increasingly stressed, to the point that

Beyond the short-term events, there is some evidence that the mass balance of the Karakoram glaciers in the headwaters of the Indus system— the source for the great majority of the river’s water (Archer and Fowler, 2004)—has been changing in ways that may reduce river flows. Glacial and snow melt are more important to water supplies in Pakistan than they are to countries farther east in the Himalayan region, where monsoons provide a much larger share of river flows (Bolch et al., 2012). Precipitation levels in winter, when most glacial accumulation occurs in the Karakoram area, have recently increased


Patterns of Violent Conflict

As background for the discussion of research about climate–conflict connections, it is useful to note several general trends in global patterns of internal and interstate conflict since the end of World War II. Traditionally researchers have used the threshold of 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year when defining a “war.” There are several large databases that track the incidence of conflicts, including different types of wars and armed conflicts around the world. In addition, there are projects to track other forms of political violence (e.g., armed attacks and political murders) or political conflict that may fall short of violence (e.g., riots).

The limitations imposed on forecasting by the relatively small number of interstate wars in recent decades are compounded by the continuing changes in the fundamental characteristics of the international system since the end of the Cold War. These circumstances make it extremely difficult to test competing hypotheses about risk factors for interstate conflict that would be relevant to current circumstances. In addition to these difficulties there is a lack of consensus among scholars about the causes of such wars and about how they compare with the sources of internal conflict. These are problems that affect any effort to understand the risks of a return to more frequent interstate conflict.

There has also been almost no effort to explore empirically whether climate factors might lead to or exacerbate tensions between states to a point short of outright war.

The core thesis for those arguing for a link between climate and violent conflict is that climate change–induced health problems and resource scarcity (in particular, the availabilities of water, food, and energy) will lead to interstate violence and intrastate unrest, instability, and armed conflict in the most directly affected nations or regions. Homer-Dixon (1991, 1994, 1999, 2007) and Swart (1996) were among the earlier articulators of this concern in the peer-reviewed literature, followed later by Sachs (2005, 2007), Kahl (2006), Stern (2007), and Lee (2009), among others.

Adverse climate change could lead to increasing natural disasters, rising sea levels, and worsening resource scarcities, all three of which are posited to lead directly to increased or forced migration and then, both directly and indirectly, to “loss of economic activity, food insecurity, and reduction in livelihoods” There are also pre-existing conditions as poor governance, societal inequalities, and “bad neighbors” (countries characterized by ongoing violence) as well as population pressure exacerbated by migration, and five “social effects of climate change [that] have been suggested as intermediating catalysts of organized violence”: political instability, social fragmentation, economic instability, inappropriate response (possibly meaning inappropriate adaptation), and additional migration, all of which act in a feedback loop. These five putative social effects of adverse climate change could lead to either increased opportunities to organize violence or increased motivation to instigate violence, with the end result being an increased risk of armed conflict.

Conclusion: It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events—including single events, conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being—will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response. It is also prudent to expect that such consequences will become more common further in the future.

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