WASHINGTON - Global climate change, if left unaddressed, is likely to pose "as a great or a greater foreign policy and national security challenge than any problem" the United States currently faces, according to a major new report released here Monday by two influential Washington think tanks.
Under a worst-case scenario, that nonetheless remains "plausible" given the latest scientific estimates, climate change's impacts on global stability "would destabilise virtually every aspect of modern life," according to the conclusions of a task force assembled by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS).
"The only comparable experience for many in the group was considering what the aftermath of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange might have entailed during the height of the Cold War," according to the 119-page study, "The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change."
The rising temperatures and sea levels that are caused by climate change will probably set off "large-scale migrations of people, both inside nations and across existing national borders" even under more benign scenarios. The impact of drought and glacial melt in some parts of the world will is also likely to spur large population movements.
"The more severe scenarios suggest the prospect of perhaps billions of people over the medium or longer term being forced to relocate," according to the report, which stressed that any mass migrations will almost certainly trigger sharp increases in regional tensions and increasingly draconian efforts by wealthier countries to prevent migrants from crossing their borders.
"Global warming has the potential to destabilise the world," said CNAS president Kurt Campbell, who served as deputy defence secretary under President Bill Clinton. "In my view, this will quickly become the defining issue of our age."
The report, which comes as the Democratic-led Congress has begun moving legislation designed to reduce global warming emissions from power plants, factories and cars by as much as 60 percent under current levels by 2050, is aimed at what Campbell called the "surprising and alarming" lack of knowledge about climate change's geo-political implications within the U.S. national security community.
Its publication follows the announcement last month that former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will receive the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to raise public awareness about climate change and its possible consequences.
In its latest estimate on the relationship between human activity and global warming released last February, the IPCC, which represents the views of hundreds of atmospheric and climate scientists from around the world, concluded with 90 percent certainty that the emission of greenhouse gases were the main cause of the warming of the Earth's atmosphere since 1950.
In a voluminous follow-up report released two months later, the IPCC offered a detailed account of the impacts of climate change on specific regions of the world over the next century.
The second IPCC report coincided with the release of yet another study by a panel of retired senior U.S. military officers that warned, among other things, that sea-level rise and a dearth of fresh water -- particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia -- would "foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies."
The latest report is the result of consultations by some 50 scientific and foreign policy experts, including Gore's former national security adviser, Leon Fuerth; Clinton's former chief of staff, John Podesta; Nobel Economics Laureate Thomas Schelling; National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone; and former CIA director and prominent neo-conservative, James Woolsey.
It posits three "plausible" scenarios based largely on the IPCC's work: "expected", "severe", and "catastrophic" climate cases and raises the major challenges that will be faced by national security policy-makers in each one in separate chapters.
The expected scenario assumes an increase in global surface temperatures of 1.3 degrees C. and a rise in sea level of .23 metres over the next 30 years; the severe scenario assumes an increase of 2.6 degrees C. and a rise in sea level of 0.52 metres over the same period. The catastrophic scenario assumes a 5.6 degrees C. temperature increase and a two-metre sea-level rise by 2100. In all three scenarios, mass migration is likely to make up "perhaps the most worrisome problems" to be faced by national security policymakers.
"No region is more directly threatened by human migration than is South Asia," as low-lying regions of Bangladesh will become progressively more uninhabitable under the expected scenario, and India will have to cope with a surge of displaced people from its eastern neighbour.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and its biggest oil-producer, and East Africa are also likely to become severely stressed under the mildest scenario, as a result of changes to the climate, coupled with population growth. State failure -- which is already in evidence in East Africa -- is a distinct possibility.
The expected decline in food production and fresh drinking water, combined with greater possibilities for intra-state and inter-state conflict, will drive more Africans and South Asians to migrate further abroad, possibly resulting in a major surge in the number of Muslim immigrants to Europe, according to the report, which notes that such processes could set in motion both a backlash among Europeans and radicalisation of the continent's Muslim population.
If the severe scenario takes hold, the Americas will also witness mass migration as the residents of low-lying areas in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and the northern rim of South America seek higher ground within countries and across countries, including into the United States.
"Accumulated stresses owing to severe climate change may cause systemic economic and political collapse in Central and Latin America," according to the report, which noted that they would almost certainly deal "the deathblow for democratic government" throughout the region.
The impact of the catastrophic scenario would be even more dire, according to the report, which quoted one participant as comparing the situation to the apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster, 'Mad Max' ...only hotter, with no beaches, and perhaps with even more chaos."
The report stressed that policy-makers should be disabused of two "myths" about climate change -- that it will be "smooth and gradual" and that it will have a relatively moderate impact on industrialised countries.
"Climate change has the potential to be one of the greatest national security challenges that this or any other generation of policy makers is likely to confront," according to the report.
© 2007 The Inter Press Service