US military says climate change could increase wars, conflict

Pentagon warns climate change worsens risks of conflict over water, food and other resources

The PSA has warned that climate change could “lead to a more unpredictable world” (Source: Flickr/US DoD)

The Pentagon says wars could become more commonplace because of climate change (Source: Flickr/US DoD)

By John McGarrity

US military chiefs have warned climate change is becoming an increasing risk to global security, providing further pause for thought among the Washington political establishment sharply divided on how to tackle global warming.

In a report published every four years that outlines future threats to the US military’s interests and potential global flashpoints, the Pentagon said climate change is a “threat multiplier” and would be a major area of future defence strategy.

“The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world,” said the report, which was published earlier this week.

The US Department of Defense added that climate change could worsen poverty, environmental pollution, political instability, and social tensions, “conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

This analysis from the normally conservative US military echoes a view of the IPCC, the UN’s scientific panel, that a changing climate could make wars and regional conflicts more likely.

Another UN agency warned earlier this year that increasing conflict and land disputes in the arid Sahel region of north-west Africa had been driven partly by shortages of food and crops in region caused by a changing climate.

A US Sea-Hawk delivers relief supplies to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (Pic: US Navy)

A US Sea-Hawk delivers relief supplies to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (Pic: US Navy)

The Pentagon report said the Sahel is one of the areas where the US is carrying out missions to thwart Islamist militias that have become a growing threat to security in the region.

Last year France had to send troops and munitions to Mali in order to stave off a potential takeover by northern militants, and the prospect that water and food resources will become more scarce because of climate change could destablise the region still further, aid agencies have warned.

Although the US military didn’t identify specific regions as making water wars more likely, previous studies have identified central and southern Asia could become increasingly unstable because of potential for water shortages in northern India and Pakistan and competition among former Soviet Republics.

Even in the US itself, tempers flared last year between states on who should have access to water supplies amid high summer temperatures and a sustained drought, a reminder that even in rich countries access to world’s most basic commodities can become increasingly fraught.

However the US military’s report did pinpoint the Arctic where increased co-operation would be necessary as the world’s climate changes, referring to last year’s Pentagon study of the region that highlighted increased risks of disputes about territory, oil and gas reserves and shipping routes as ice caps melt.

Complex link

Besides warning of the geopolitical risks of climate change that could suck up more of the US’ military resources, the Pentagon’s climate study also highlighted the operational risks that water scarcity, rising sea levels and extreme weather could have on day-to-day operations and its bases.

Officially, the US has major installations in around 30 countries worldwide, but unofficially is active in many more countries besides, including arid areas of the Middle East and Africa.

The Pentagon’s warnings won’t necessarily get a warm reception from the military’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill, as Republicans are divided on the causes of climate change and what to do about it.

And some security experts say the relationship between changes to climate and conflict is highly complex and have cautioned against an oversimplified link between the two, pointing out that there are many other causes of wars and regional dispute than climate and resources.

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