The new head of U.S. intelligence and top adviser to President Barack Obama says climate change is a top threat to the national security of the country.
Poor countries, often with weaker governance systems, also will be hit hardest by the extreme flooding or dry spells forced by significant warming of the planet, undermining leadership there and putting at-risk citizens further in harm's way, warns Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair.
"The impacts (of climate change) will worsen existing problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions," Blair told senators last week.
As temperatures rise, scientists predict natural disasters like floods and drought will also increase and government instability worldwide is likely to follow, he said.
These outcomes have been predicted before, particularly in a 2007 report, "National Security and the Threat of Global Climate Change," by the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit research organization.
"The risks have increased in the last two years," CNA General Counsel Sherri Goodman told United Press International. "The indicators of climate change have increased, from melting in the arctic to the increases in droughts and flooding to the wildfires in Australia and Greece."
Such events cause instability in the affected regions by increasing water shortages and health problems, among other things, Goodman said.
In Ethiopia, some experts say changing weather linked to rising global temperatures has exacerbated the cholera epidemic, plunging the already poverty-stricken nation further into turmoil.
Many of the places most likely to be hardest hit by changing weather patterns are also the most politically unstable and economically troubled. For example, a series of studies at Columbia University found the largest number of people exposed to sea level rises live in China, the Philippines, Egypt and Indonesia; 64 million people in China and the Philippines alone inhabit areas at risk for flooding if sea levels rise as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists that has released reports on the topic.
All these factors combine to pose serious national security risks for the United States, said Gen. Gordon Sullivan, former Army chief of staff and chairman of the military advisory board for CNA's climate-change report.
"It's a threat multiplier," he told UPI. "Places that will be hit are already hard hit."
The list of areas predicted to be dramatically affected by climate change isn't small, either; it includes almost all of Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, said Kent Butts, director of the National Security Issues Group at the U.S Army War College, a training facility that prepares military officers and civilians for strategic leadership positions.
The potential geopolitical problems that could result from climate change range from mass migrations to civil wars and decreased agricultural productivity to the spread of terrorist groups, Butts said.
These resulting disasters would follow a long chain of events, Butts explained. First, climate-induced disasters, like droughts, could create resource shortages or force people from their homes. Lack of food, water and/or shelter would likely create social unrest, leading to potential political upheaval, making room for extremist movements to take over the government.
This can happen anytime a government can't satisfy the basic needs of its citizens, Butts said, pointing to the 2006 political victory of Hamas, an extremist organization that won the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliamentary election that year.
However, climate change could make political turnovers much more common by making it more difficult for governments to maintain economic and social normalcy, Butts said.
"When a government can't meet the needs of its people, it lays out a welcome mat for Islamic extremism," he said.
Terrorists can take advantage of climate change in other ways as well, including using the issue as fuel to garner support and turn people against Western nations, particularly the United States. That's because many terrorists "preach that climate change is largely the result of capacious consumption of energy resources by the West and that the impacts fall on Muslim people," Butts told UPI.
In fact, Osama bin Laden included a message to this effect in a 2007 videotaped statement.
It's not just terrorists, though, who recognize the industrialized world's hand in spurring on climate change.
Developed nations are responsible for 70 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions from 1950 to 2000, according to the World Resources Institute, but are also expected to be less severely impacted by changing weather patterns. As a result, these richer nations should help poorer countries adapt to a changing world, said Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University.
"We really need to come up with some kind of international adaptation mechanism," Levy said. "Since the wealthy countries emitted all the carbon that's up there, they have the moral obligation to help other countries."
Some measures have been taken to address the problem, both from the adaptation and mitigation standpoints.
In January 2008 Congress passed legislation requiring the next National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy consider risks posed by climate change to Department of Defense facilities, capabilities and missions.
According to Sullivan, who worked on the CNA report, military officials "are well aware of the fact that destabilization caused by climate change is very important … (and they) are considering the implications of climate change, like drought, flooding and failed states."
The international community is gearing up to draft the next international agreement on greenhouse emissions this December in Copenhagen, Denmark, and many experts predict the treaty will include binding targets to reduce heat-trapping gases. The Obama administration has also advocated the implementation of a domestic cap-and-trade system that would limit the amount of carbon dioxide emissions U.S. businesses could send into the atmosphere.