Bad Tidings

January 2, 2008 Topic: EnergySecurity Tags: Undefined

Bad Tidings

Mini Teaser: In his article "What Resource Wars?" David Victor argued that the threat of resource wars is exaggerated. Sherri Goodman and Paul Kern take him to task.

by Author(s): Sherri W. GoodmanPaul J. Kern

WHILE WE agree with many of the points raised by David Victor in his article, "What Resource Wars?", we are concerned that he underestimates the risks climate change poses to global stability and to our national security-risks addressed in our CNA-sponsored study, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. Far from scare tactics, the report reflects a simple tenet of military planning: Wars are best avoided by preparing ahead of time for potential threats; managing the risks.

When Victor argues that the weak link in preserving peace "isn't a dearth in resources but a dearth in governance", he misses the point. Ignoring serious climate problems on the horizon is a dearth of governance. Debates between different groups in the United States about the causes of conflict and climate change are not reasons to defer decision-making or delay action in planning for uncertain eventualities. In fact, it serves to highlight the potential vulnerabilities we face and the need to address them. One of the primary principles of U.S. national security is that we take prudent action to reduce risks and threats. Paying no heed to even potential threats recklessly rejects that principle.

The evidence mounts daily that an extreme weather event could cause key states already suffering from a dearth of governance to spiral out of control. A rise in sea level or water loss from dwindling glaciers could be the trigger. One need only consider the inadequacy of the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing chaos, loss of life and damage to homes in order to recognize that many regions of the world simply do not have the capacity to cope with multiple major natural disasters wrought, in part, by climate change.

Adopting a dismissive attitude, Victor declares that "serious thinking about climate change must recognize that the ‘hard' security threats that are supposedly lurking are mostly a ruse." Putting aside the fact that Victor seems to be hedging his bets by using the word "mostly", he again misses a key security-related point. Although global climate change may fall well short of directly spurring armed conflict, it acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world-and that may affect U.S. national security.

Weakened states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, already struggling to provide for their citizens' basic needs, will wrestle with the effects of global climate change. Natural and humanitarian disasters, consequences of climate change, will "likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope", as our report explains. All this exacerbates resource shortfalls and hinders progress toward better governance.

This instability hits close to home. It is conceivable that if the effects of climate change are left unaddressed, the U.S. role in these troubled areas will have to increase. The United States may be drawn into these failing states more often to provide relief and help stave off potential armed conflicts. Once a conflict has broken out, the United States may have to contribute to reconstruction and stabilization efforts.

As for his assertion that "water wars don't happen", Victor does not tell the whole story. While no recent wars have been waged solely over water, scarcity of agricultural land and competition for other resources were contributing factors to conflict and instability in Rwanda and Darfur in the 1990s and in Ethiopia and Nigeria in the 1970s. Whether resource scarcity will be the impetus for peaceful cooperation or a contributor to conflict in the future remains to be seen. Regions that are already water-scarce, such as Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, Rwanda, Somalia, Algeria and Kenya, may be forced to confront this choice as climate change exacerbates their water scarcity. And nations critical to global stability are expected to become water-scarce within several decades: Pakistan, South Africa, and large parts of China and India.

"Water wars" are not just disputes over wells or even about water, per se. They are about the consequences of a lack of water-consequences that are already being felt. Conflicts over access to vital resources are scattered throughout Africa. Darfur is the best recent example of, as we note in our report, how "existing marginal situations can be exacerbated beyond the tipping point by climate-related factors." Here, drought led to competition for land that has access to water. When combined with existing issues like population growth and tribal, ethnic and religious disputes, the struggle for land turned violent. Is the Darfur conflict a classic "water war"? Perhaps not. But has a lack of water played a critical role in that tragedy? Absolutely.

A consideration of the potential impact of global climate change on water resources also forces us to think about the fate of regions of the world not included in today's definition of "trouble spots." The source of some of Asia's major rivers-the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow-is the Himalayan ice sheet. Should glaciers there continue to melt, as our report details, "the water supply of much of Asia" will diminish drastically.

And take Peru, which is already in a fragile state with limited experience with democracy, frequent bouts of insurgency, and continuing border disputes with Chile and Ecuador. Most of Peru's water comes from glacial melt, which is predicted to disappear within a decade or so. How will Peru's 27 million people cope with a lack of fresh water? Will they become unwelcome immigrants to Peru's neighbors where tensions already exist? The questions are serious, and the likelihood of trouble is very real.

Victor also shrugs off the potential spread of diseases due to global climate change and the resulting impact on the health of major populations, calling such scenarios "good fodder for the imagination." But he is simply off the mark. Such concerns aren't non-issues for those professionals charged with protecting human health, such as the Center for Disease Control's director, Julie Gerberding. In fact, she has testified, "It is not a question of whether there will be health effects from global warming, but a reality of who, where, when, and how." And in its 2005 report Global Climate Change and Health, the World Heath Organization raised concerns over a significant spreading of the conditions for vector-borne diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, and such food-borne diseases as salmonellosis.

Victor isn't all wrong, though. He is very much on target in his view that "if resource wars are actually rare-and when they do exist, they are part of a complex of causal factors-then much of the conventional wisdom about resource policies needs fresh scrutiny." He also posits the sensible opinion that when taken all together, the potential ill effects of global climate change scenarios "are truly disturbing" and then adds, in seeming contradiction to the rest of his argument, "meaningful action to stem the dangers is long overdue."

Action is needed. In our report, the Military Advisory Board (MAB) offered concrete measures to begin to address the threats posed by climate change. The national-security consequences of climate change are real. In order to effectively combat these effects, they must be integrated into national-security and national-defense strategies. The United States must work more intensely on a national and international level and develop global partnerships to help less-developed countries prepare for climate change. The Department of Defense must also make important adjustments. Our military leaders must assess the impact of global change on U.S. military installations, and adopt new business processes and innovative technologies to improve energy efficiency and, in turn, U.S. combat power.

And politicians do, as Victor says, "give more attention to imagined insecurities from climate change and rarely talk about climate as a game of odds and risk management." But those are critical components of sensible planning, and the MAB's recommendations are focused on precisely those principles: risk management and prudent action to apply the principles and approaches of threat assessment to climate change.

The answer to Victor's question, "What Resource Wars?", is "The ones we must act now to avoid." This was the hallmark of America's Cold War security strategy of containment, which sought to reduce the risk of the Soviet use of nuclear weapons and other military threats. In the post-Cold War age of insecurity, we should act now to reduce the risks of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing clean energy futures, and helping vulnerable nations develop capacity and resiliency to cope with the inevitable effects of our changing climate.


Sherri W. Goodman, former deputy under secretary of defense, is CNA general counsel and the executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board. Paul J. Kern, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Material Command, is a member of the CNA Military Advisory Board.

Essay Types: Essay