Darfur, Baghdad, and us

Darfur campThe New York Times covers a new report coming out Monday saying that global warming poses a security threat to the United States.

The effects of global warming, the study said, could lead to large-scale migrations, increased border tensions, the spread of disease and conflicts over food and water. All could lead to direct involvement by the United States military.

The report recommends that climate change be integrated into the nation’s security strategies and says the United States “should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.”

This echoes the famous 2003 report done for the Pentagon outlining worst-case global-warming possibilities (often incorrectly described as the U.S. Defense Department’s actual predictions). It contemplated a run on the developed world’s borders by desperately poor people flooded or thirsted out of their homes, followed by new tensions among nuclear-armed nations competing for scarcer resources to feed and supply not only themselves, but all the refugees they’d be trying to cope with.

A realistic forecast of the future isn’t that negative, but it is still alarming. Considers the tremendous success of radical movements, particularly radical Islamism, in finding recruits in collapsed states such as Somalia, Sudan, post-Soviet Afghanistan, and now Iraq, and how much easier it is to collapse a state when the people who live in it don’t have enough to eat or drink, let alone the means to run businesses or follow a presidential election campaign on TV. The rule of law doesn’t mean much to a man with an AK-47 and a starving child.

Sudan’s the most striking case. At heart, the slaughter in Darfur is about which ethno-religious group — nomads or farmers — will have access to the region’s shrinking expanse of fertile land.

Security analyst John Robb sees collapsing states as the goal in itself of many global guerrilla movements. They aren’t trying to take territory or establish alternative governments of their own, he argues, just trying to carve out enough ungovernable territory for themselves to operate in comfortably. They’re doing a pretty good job of it, even in the face of the world’s best-equipped, best-trained military machine.

All of which would be somebody else’s problem if our prosperity didn’t depend on tenuous supply lines stretching into and past a lot of these conflict zones. You don’t need to cut off all the oil to the West to send our economy into a tailspin — just find a way to hike prices 20 cents a gallon (blow up one pipeline, say, or take a handful of sailors captive) and watch the Big Three automakers lay off tens of thousands of people because the companies’ cars are suddenly less unattractive.

We can’t enforce order in lawless places, and we can’t harden all our infrastructure — ships and pipelines, say — to make them invulnerable to small-scale attacks. But we can:

  1. Harden our economies — and our own personal finances — by making them less dependent on one admittedly finite source of energy.
  2. Open our societies to outsiders even more than they already are, reducing the imbalance that already exists between the number of people who want to come to the West to make their fortunes and the number of people we allow to try. Trap fewer people in the vulnerable Third World, essentially, by liberalizing our immigration policies (to make this work, we’ll probably have to reduce our social programs’ generosity to new immigrants).
  3. Recognize that our appetites have unfair harmful effects on others half a world away, and strive to reduce that impact. This is the big one. If we ignore these problems, they don’t go away. They wait, patiently, for the right moment to bring themselves to our attention.

Instead, too many of us retreat into jingoism and isolationism. Watch half an hour of Lou Dobbs on CNN and you’ll see what I mean — we want the government to do something about gas prices, about the foreigners coming to take our jobs, about the pain we’re feeling as our unsustainable lifestyles kick us in the butt.

That’s the wrong response. It can’t work. We have to save ourselves.

Photo credit: Flickr/mknobil.

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