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Climate Terror

April 26, 2007


Canadian iconoclast, futurist, and conflict expert Thomas Homer-Dixon has turned his attention to climate change and its potential for tearing societies apart [“Terror in the Weather Forecast,” New York Times, 24 April 2007]. He is joined in his concern by the United Kingdom. The UK raised the issue of climate change in the United Nations Security Council, which is charged by the UN Charter to take up matters that could affect international peace and security. Not all governments agree that the Security Council should be considering the issue. Homer-Dixon writes:

“Countries rich and poor, large and small, and from all continents — Bangladesh, Ghana, Japan, Mexico, much of Europe and, most poignantly, a large number of small island states endangered by rising seas — recognized the security implications of climate change. Some other developing countries — Brazil, Cuba and India and most of the biggest producers of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide, including China, Qatar and Russia — either questioned the very idea of such a link or argued that the Security Council is not the right place to talk about it. But these skeptics are wrong. Evidence is fast accumulating that, within our children’s lifetimes, severe droughts, storms and heat waves caused by climate change could rip apart societies from one side of the planet to the other. Climate stress may well represent a challenge to international security just as dangerous — and more intractable — than the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war or the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue states today.”

Since immersing myself in the global resilience sector, I have been preaching the importance of taking a holistic approach to resilience. Intractable climate change adds another level of complexity that must be factored into any organization’s resilience equation that should already include security (personal, physical infrastructure and cyber), compliance (laws, regulations, policies, etc.), and performance optimization (lead six sigma, etc.). That trinity of concerns is broad enough to include everything from climate change to pandemics, but an organization (commercial or government) must still employ people capable of seeing potential threats and understanding how they might affect the organization. Homer-Dixon notes that the military, whose business requires it to examine worst-case scenarios, is taking climate change seriously.

“Congress and senior military leaders are taking heed: Legislation under consideration in both the Senate and the House calls for the director of national intelligence to report on the geopolitical implications of climate change. And last week a panel of 11 retired generals and admirals warned that climate change is already a ‘threat multiplier’ in the world’s fragile regions, ‘exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states — the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.’ Addressing the question of scientific uncertainty about climate change, Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff who is now retired, said: ‘Speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.’ In the future, that battlefield is likely to be complex and hazardous. Climate change will help produce the kind of military challenges that are difficult for today’s conventional forces to handle: insurgencies, genocide, guerrilla attacks, gang warfare and global terrorism.”

Families, cities, counties, states, nations, businesses, religions, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations must all consider how various eventualities could affect their future as well as the future of those they serve. This is not fear-mongering, simply prudent planning. Homer-Dixon writes about how past environmental stress has had devastating consequences, especially in the developing world.

“In the 1990s, a research team I led at the University of Toronto examined links between various forms of environmental stress in poor countries — cropland degradation, deforestation and scarcity of fresh water, for example — and violent conflict. In places as diverse as Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa, we found that severe environmental stress multiplied the pain caused by such problems as ethnic strife and poverty. Rural residents who depend on local natural resources for their livelihood become poorer, while powerful elites take control of — and extract exorbitant profits from — increasingly valuable land, forests and water. As these resources in the countryside dwindle, people sometimes join local rebellions against landowners and government officials. In mountainous areas of the Philippines, for instance, deforestation, soil erosion and depletion of soil nutrients have increased poverty and helped drive peasants into the arms of the Communist New People’s Army insurgency. Other times, people migrate in large numbers to regions where resources seem more plentiful, only to fight with the people already there. Or they migrate to urban slums, where unemployed young men can be primed to join criminal gangs or radical political groups.”

He sees climate change generating more of these consequences.

“Climate change will have similar effects, if nations fail to aggressively limit carbon dioxide emissions and develop technologies and institutions that allow people to cope with a warmer planet. The recent report of Working Group II of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies several ways warming will hurt poor people in the third world and hinder economic development there more generally. Large swaths of land in subtropical latitudes — zones inhabited by billions of people — will experience more drought, more damage from storms, higher mortality from heat waves, worse outbreaks of agricultural pests and an increased burden of infectious disease. The potential impact on food output is a particular concern: in semiarid regions where water is already scarce and cropland overused, climate change could devastate agriculture. (There is evidence that warming’s effect on crops and pastureland is a cause of the Darfur crisis.) Many cereal crops in tropical zones are already near their limits of heat tolerance, and temperatures even a couple of degrees higher could lead to much lower yields. By weakening rural economies, increasing unemployment and disrupting livelihoods, global warming will increase the frustrations and anger of hundreds of millions of people in vulnerable countries. Especially in Africa, but also in some parts of Asia and Latin America, climate change will undermine already frail governments — and make challenges from violent groups more likely — by reducing revenues, overwhelming bureaucracies and revealing how incapable these governments are of helping their citizens.”

Even more important than preparing to mitigate the effects of climate change, is striving to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Homer-Dixon believes that much of the developed world (in which he seems to include China, Russia, and India) is trying to isolate itself from the consequences of climate change occurring in nations less capable of dealing with them. He doesn’t believe that climate change is something from which you can run and hide.

“We’ve learned in recent years that such failure can have consequences around the world and that great powers can’t always isolate themselves from these consequences. It’s time to put climate change on the world’s security agenda.”

The good news is that a band wagon appears to have to started rolling. It doesn’t require one to agree on why climate change is occurring (that remains a heated debate), but governments, organizations, and businesses are climbing aboard the wagon and we are all likely to benefit from their participation in the band. The Washington Post, for example, reported on a trip to the Amazon by a group of executives that included representatives from McDonald’s and Greenpeace, who are uniting to prevent rainforest clearing [“New Allies on The Amazon,” by Marc Kaufman, 24 April 2007].

The tale of how the two heavyweights came together reflects the complexities, pressures and ironies of the globalized economy. It also illustrates how once-unthinkable partnerships can become forces for addressing environmental and social problems that governments cannot handle. With Brazilian soy, the problem at least partially grew out of an unrelated dispute over genetically modified food products. While U.S. consumers and many others largely accept biotech foods, the products are unpopular with Europeans, and most companies doing business in Europe make a point of using only soy, corn and other staples that have not been genetically modified. With U.S. and other major soy growers increasingly turning to biotech crops, Brazilian growers saw a market opportunity in traditional, non-modified soy. With help from multinational companies such as Cargill, some Brazilian farmers began cutting down trees in the interior of the Amazon rainforest to grow soy and other crops. The scale of the operation did not become apparent until 2003, when Greenpeace and other activists saw satellite maps that showed significant new deforestation. Because of the Amazon rainforest’s central role in modulating global climate, the maps caused immediate alarm. Greenpeace’s investigators searched records to see which companies were involved in the destruction and which were buying the rainforest soy. One relatively small-scale but high-profile buyer was McDonald’s European operation, which fed the soy to chickens destined to become McNuggets. Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations have become adept at putting pressure on big companies like McDonald’s, which don’t want customers to think they are unfriendly to the environment or mistreating animals. Greenpeace not only staged rainforest protests at McDonald’s outlets in Europe last spring, but it also sent its ship, the Arctic Sunrise, to block Cargill’s port in the Amazon city of Santarem. Following the protests, the fast-food chain and the environmentalists got together and brought in Cargill. The company had opened a port and series of soy silos at Santarem in 2003 and encouraged some farmers to grow soy for it — though Johnson, the spokeswoman, said the company thought most of the 150 to 200 farmers it worked with were tilling land that had been deforested long ago. She also said the port was used to ship soy grown outside the rainforest. At first, Cargill took the stand that it was bringing economic development to an impoverished region and was already working with the Nature Conservancy and others to promote good stewardship practices. Greenpeace, and soon additional environmental groups, replied that the company was inducing farmers to move into environmentally fragile areas, where they often began planting with fake property papers, without proper permits and with little understanding of forest conservation. Faced with its unhappy McDonald’s client, Cargill brought together other Brazilian soy traders, and they ultimately agreed on the moratorium — an unthinkable action just a few months before.”

I expect this kind of strange bedfellow politics to continue. Our Development-in-a-Box™ approach embraces communities of practice, the main characteristic of which is the ability for various groups to opt in or out depending on circumstances and interests. It is important that groups with differing perspectives and agendas find a way to work together on issues in which they share a common interest. Climate change seems to be one of those issues. For more on this subject, check out Tom Barnett’s blog on Homer-Dixon’s column.


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