'Resource Shocks' Caused By Climate Change Cited As National Security Threat


Earth's water distribution chart
A graphical distribution of the locations of water on Earth.(image credit: USGS)

We tend to expect a relatively conservative stance from our intelligence community on most any issue affecting national security, and, in particular, the dual issue of global warming and climate change. This ‘traditional’ stance reflects the general position of our elected leaders who continue to resist taking meaningful action and keep kicking the climate change can down the road.

But perhaps our intelligence experts, being experts at gathering information, have at last come to see the true “threat multiplier” that is climate change.

This past March, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, reading from the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress, cited “competition and scarcity involving natural resources”as a national security threat. This represents the first time our national intelligence community has framed its threat analysis in the context of global climate change. In so doing, director Clapper has placed scarcity of natural resources as a security threat equal in impact to terrorism, cyberwars, and nuclear proliferation.

Speaking to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Clapper elaborated:

“Many countries important to the United States are vulnerable to natural resource shocks that degrade economic development, frustrate attempts to democratize, raise the risk of regime-threatening instability, and aggravate regional tensions. Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.”

According to a recent analysis on Truthout.org (see link below), the new intelligence policy stance appears to have been heavily influenced by a 2012 research paper titled Resources Futures published by the well-respected think-tank Chatham House based in the UK. Citing the “spectre of resource insecurity” the UK researchers found ample reasons for concern with emphasis on wars over water resources — especially in the Middle East. Two important examples cited in the paper were the regions surrounding the Nile and Jordan River basins. In each region, several countries (and various groups) currently depend on these rivers for most of their critical water needs. As these watersheds are exploited to their maxima and global warming adds its multiplier effect, they grow ripe for conflict.

The Chatham House study states:

“Against this backdrop of tight supplies and competition, issues related to water rights, prices, and pollution are becoming contentious. In areas with limited capacity to govern shared resources, balance competing demands, and mobilize new investments, tensions over water may erupt into more open confrontations.”

Interestingly, although the UK paper states clearly its view that the world is “undergoing a period of intensified resource stress” — driven by a combination of increasing demand, tight commodity markets and short-sighted policies — it also suggests that some aspect of this “resource scarcity” may be a matter of perception, stating:

“Whether or not resources are actually running out, the outlook is one of supply disruptions, volatile prices, accelerated environmental degradation and rising political tensions over resource access.”

This slight skepticism might be somewhat reassuring (the “maybe everything will turn out fine if we just let the markets do what they do naturally” mind set) if it were not for historical precedent, which the paper also notes, observing that “fears of resource scarcity are not new.”

To be sure, history is filled with examples of conflicts started over, or resulting from, resource shortages. Here in the Western Hemisphere, several ancient civilizations engaged in prolonged warfare due to a combination of over-population and crop failures/food shortages — most notably the Maya and the Anasazi civilizations.

Across the pond, the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) waged on during a prolonged “Little Ice Age” that struck the entire European continent and reducing agricultural output by a third.

More recently, some historians have observed that fears of food shortages within the home population were major motivating factors in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and Germany’s invasions of Poland in 1939 and the Soviet Union in 1941.

And, in the 21st Century, we have the intermittent conflict and on-going humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan (which has spilled into neighboring Chad), believed by many observers to have resulted from conflicts over control of/access to water.

Darfur refugee camp (in Chad)
Darfur refugee camp in Chad, 2005 (image credit: Mark Knobil from Pittsburgh, usa)

Regular readers of Planetsave may recall the 2011 study by Zhang et al showing a strong causal relationship between severe climate fluctuations and the occurrence of migrations, “social upheavals” and large-scale human conflict in preindustrial Europe and the Northern Hemisphere.

So it seems that our intelligence experts are finally seeing the climate change “writing on the wall”, and in so doing, are finally allowing official policy to catch up with the consensus of the scientific community. And with it, we have a new phrase entering the climate change lexicon: “resource shocks”.

Advocates of a more aggressive climate change policy are hoping that this more assertive and sobering stance — coming from those placed in charge of protecting our national security — will be the reality shock our elected officials are desperately in need of.

Author Comment:

Sadly, given the foot-dragging and political cowardice on this issue by our political leaders here in the US, we will no doubt be hearing this phrase (“resource shocks”) more often in the years to come. Hopefully, enough of us will take the initiative now to do what we can to lessen these shocks — not so much for ourselves here in the US (a nation better equipped financially to absorb these shocks), but for those many other developing nations that will bear the brunt of climate change impacts (from severe weather, flooding, drought, pestilence, disease) though they be the least responsible for causing them. It is, in the end, a question of justice.

Some source material for this post came form the Truthout essay: ‘How Resource Scarcity and Climate Change Could Produce a Global Explosion’  by Michael T. Klare (TomDispatch)



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