Security and climate change

This story annoys me for two reasons. The first is that it’s from Monday and I missed it until TreeHugger pointed it out. The second is that the reporter seems to have fundamentally missed Air Chief Marshall “Jock” Stirrup’s point.

The chief of Britain’s defence staff is echoing the warnings from senior American military planners that climate change is a security threat to the developed world, in addition to everything else:

Jock Stirrup, chief of the defense staff, said risks that climate change could cause weakened states to disintegrate and produce major humanitarian disasters or exploitation by armed groups had to become a feature of military planning.

But he said first analyses showed planners would not have to switch their geographical focus, because the areas most vulnerable to climate change are those where security risks are already high.

“Just glance at a map of the areas most likely to be affected and you are struck at once by the fact that they are exactly those parts of the world where we see fragility, instability and weak governance today.

“It seems to me rather like pouring petrol onto a burning fire,” Stirrup told the Chatham House think-tank in London.

But then at the end, clearly thinking of Iraq, writer Jeremy Lovell includes this:

Asked on the margins of the meeting if that meant military planners should opt for preemptive action where they saw a security crisis emerging, he said: “Only in the sense of building governance. Recognizing the problem is the first step.”

Stirrup evidently understands something key that Lovell perhaps didn’t: The places where climate change will endanger security are exactly the places prone to problems that we haven’t a bloody clue how to fix. We’re not talking about Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Iran under the ayatollahs and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — we’re talking about Iraq today, where the mightiest army in the world is getting itself ground down by the day. We’re talking about Sudan, the tribal regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, guerrilla-ridden Central America. Dirt-poor places where even average people just barely get by, places already violent and riven by clan and tribal cleavages, places where government structures just barely exist, and radical religions are already well established. Places the New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof wrote about in this column:

If we need any more proof that life is unfair, it is that subsistence villagers here in Africa will pay with their lives for our refusal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

When we think of climate change, we tend to focus on Alaskan villages or New Orleans hurricanes. But the people who will suffer the worst will be those living in countries like this, even though they don’t contribute at all to global warming.

My win-a-trip journey with a student and a teacher has taken us to Burundi, which the World Bank’s latest report shows to be the poorest country in the world. People in Burundi have an annual average income of $100, nearly one child in five dies before the age of five, and life expectancy is 45.

Against that grim backdrop, changing weather patterns in recent years have already caused crop failures — and when the crops fail here, people starve. In short, our greenhouse gases are killing people here.

Climate change, and the drought and famine and increasing desertification it’s expected to bring to those particular places, will turning merely getting enough to eat and drink into a zero-sum affair: I only get enough by taking it away from you. The most primal loyalties kick in and existing ethnoreligious tensions reach the breaking point. The whole idea of sacrificing for the greater good becomes absurd, because I don’t have enough as it is, and everything I’ve got — everything my children and my brother and my parents and my cousins have — is held only as a result of our own use of force.

Pre-emptive action? What pre-emptive action could First World countries possibly take in such places? All we know how to do is knock things down there — and nobody knows how to set them back up again, except by leaning one dirty bloodstained card against the next and hoping for the best. Meanwhile, though, the angry and violent people who manage to thrive in those conditions are getting better and better at blowing those cards down. I refer you again to John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog, where he daily tracks just how good they’re getting.

Leave aside the moral implications of Kristof’s above declaration for a moment. What we’ve found, firmly, is that when our stupid neglect leads to the deaths of people over there, it’s only a matter of time before some of them start to think maybe they should come and raise some hell over here.

That’s the security challenge we can’t ignore.

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