A new NATO special report concludes that climate change is the ultimate “threat multiplier”—meaning that it can exacerbate political instability in the world’s most unstable regions—because by intensifying extreme weather events like droughts, climate change stresses food and water supplies. In poor, arid countries already facing shortages, this increased stress can lead to disputes and violent conflicts over scarce resources. As the report concludes:
“… food, water and climate are intimately connected with the sectors of economic development, demography, energy, ecosystems and urban planning—to name but a few interrelated sectors. The international community must improve the international food market to increase stability of prices and availability. Last but not least, the Parties who have ratified the 2015 Paris climate agreement must live up to their pledges, including on climate financing for developing countries.”
While the NATO report’s main focus is on exploring the specifics of food and water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa, it also effectively documents the overall role that climate change plays in exacerbating the problem. One study just published in Environmental Research Letters examines how scientists can better characterize and inform risk management actions, for example by identifying the values that are at risk and by framing key information in a way that clearly communicates why decisions matter. As study co-author Peter Gleick explains:
“The new NATO study highlights the growing risks of violence in the Middle East linked to food and water problems worsened by accelerating climate change. These are worries also identified by US intelligence and military experts and will have to be factored into any assessments of national security priorities and actions for the future.”
And it’s not just NATO; the Defense Department considers climate change a threat multiplier as well. In fact, Gleick published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the connections between environment and security over 25 years ago. In that piece, Gleick noted that “migrating populations in search of more benevolent environmental and social conditions may undermine regional peace and security … the era of the Cold War may soon be replaced by the era of environmental conflict.”
A quarter century later, we’re still grappling with the interconnections between environment and security, which are becoming increasingly evident. For example, another of Gleick’s papers found that the global warming-amplified drought in Syria contributed to that region’s civil unrest. Donald Trump is about to visit Sicily, which has been flooded with refugees from the region. These are the types of climate change-amplified risks that concern the Pentagon and NATO.
Climate change may be humanity’s worst-ever risk management failure. We’re causing rapid changes to the climate of the only planet we inhabit, on which we and every other species on Earth rely. Human civilization only developed over the past 10,000 years, during which time the Earth’s climate entered a relatively stable period. This stability allowed humans to settle in areas where we could rely on relatively consistent weather patterns, and develop agricultural production based on stable weather and climate. But we’re now raising Earth’s temperature at a rate 20 to 50 times faster than normally happens when it transitions out of an ice age. This rapid climate destabilization threatens the foundations of human society.
People are normally good at risk management. For example, once the health impacts of smoking became clear to the public, cigarette consumption fell rapidly. Each puff represents just a small increase in the odds of developing cancer, but most people decided that with something as important as their health, and as dangerous as cancer, the smart course of action is to minimize that risk. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry was able to manufacture doubt about the risks posed by its products for several decades.
We’re now in the same position with climate change. Despite the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to cast doubt on the dangers posed by its products, experts are clearly identifying and communicating those risks to the public. And most people—including 62 percent of Trump voters— support carbon pollution regulation, carbon taxes, or a combination of both. Given our reliance on the climate of the only planet we’ve got, mitigating the risks posed by rapid climate change should be a no-brainer. NATO, the Pentagon, and most Americans realize it, but many of our political leaders don’t seem to grasp the basic concepts of risk management when it comes to climate change—or the fact that it’s already exacerbating problems our political leaders are concerned about, like the refugee crisis.