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Security alert for the planet

Climate change has been a source of violence and instability throughout most of human history. Now, says Carl Pope, the Tibetan Plateau is on the global warming frontline.
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In our hearts, many Americans know that addiction to oil is responsible for the war in Iraq. But while oil addiction is the nexus between the causes of global warming and the threats to US national security, global warming itself is a much bigger threat to security than oil addiction alone would be.

One irony of the debate on climate change is that “uncertainty” is used as an argument by those who would delay effective action on global warming. Uncertainty about future climate patterns, however, should not be a reassuring excuse for inaction; it should sound the alarm for an urgent response. Climatic uncertainty and instability have historically been at the root of many long-range threats to human security, and are again today.

Climate change has been one of the major sources of violence and instability during most of human history. From the fourth century BC until the battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260, which ended the Mongol Invasion of the middle east, world history was dominated by climate-change wars. For 1,700 years, the drying out of central Asia sent wave after wave of nomads to topple the Roman Empire, unseat Chinese dynasty after dynasty, expel the Byzantine Empire from Asia Minor and finally topple the Arab Caliphate by sacking Baghdad. Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were propelled on to the world scene by climate change.

Glacier melt

The map of global security in the 21st century, however, begins with the Tibetan Plateau. From its glaciers originate the great rivers of the Asian heartland: Yangtze, Salween, Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Mekong, Irawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus. Roughly one-third of humanity depends on food grown in these watersheds. Global warming puts this entire circuit of fertility at risk.

Climate change and disruption will put pressure on populations with scarce resources, creating competition for those resources and sparking conflict. At the same time, decreasing crop yields, drought, rising sea levels and other climate impacts will create new refugee populations, further destabilising already vulnerable regions. Over 200 million people live in coastal cities and low-lying countries which would be affected by rising sea levels.

This was recently summarised in a report [pdf] for the military prepared by Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network, who warned that greater climatic variability – regardless of its details – could create enormous instability in societies already under stress. “Just look at Somalia in the early 1990s,” Schwartz said. “You had disruption driven by drought, leading to the collapse of a society, humanitarian relief efforts, and then disastrous US military intervention. That event is prototypical of the future.”

A recent trip to Cambodia reminded me again of the impact that climate change could have on a civilisation. Religious fervour and slavery were only one part of how the ancient Khmers were able to devote so much manpower to building the Angkor temples. The elegance and craftsmanship of the relief panels required dedicated, skilled and focused artisans. The Khmer kings had to be able to feed their people with the labour of relatively small portion of the population. The ecosystem of the Tonle Sap Lake made this possible, providing protein in the form of fish, and calories in the form of paddy rice. Every ancient Khmer artisan carving the sandstone devatas of the temple carvings was supported by the gifts made possible by a big slice of rich natural ecosystem. It was those natural services – above all – that made the Khmer empire powerful, and Angkor possible.

Now, Cambodia still has only 13 million people; every citizen still enjoys a fair chunk of the Tonle Sap's bounty. But to the north lies China, with more than 1 billion people, whose government announced last year that by 2030 it will have exploited all of its water supplies. One response is already in the works: damming the Mekong River. But this carries the risk of dismembering the web of ecosystem services provided by both the river and the Tonle Sap.

In the end, China may risk long-term ecological disaster in order to avert short-term economic upheaval. It will require a new kind of economic and ecological cooperation to avoid more and more of these scenarios.

National security

I do not typically testify on congressional panels alongside a former CIA director, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, admirals and four-star generals. My appearance before the House Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence last April, therefore, was a first for me. What I found stunning was that, despite our very different backgrounds, the testimony the five of us delivered was, in all but the smallest details, identical.

The hearing was the day after a meeting of the UN Security Council on the same topic, and two days after the release of a blue ribbon military report on how global warming threatens national security.

At the beginning, Representative James Sensenbrenner, a member of the Republicans – the minority party in Congress – known as the ranking minority member, took on the committee chair, Representative Ed Markey. He lamented that some of the solutions to climate change advocated by “extremists” would be devastating. But after the panel finished, and Sensenbrenner had tried to force us into yes or no answers on nuclear energy and coal, he retreated with the comment: “Well, at least you all admit that this is complicated.”

Overall there were few fireworks, and the proceedings reflected a consensus on climate change that is finally seeping into Washington.

The US Congress has an important role to play in developing policies that will ensure national security by cutting American oil dependence and curbing global warming. The Sierra Club believes Congress should act now to raise fuel economy standards, invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, move forward on clean, renewable fuels and adopt economy-wide caps on global warming emissions.

Growing up, I used to ask my father repeatedly: “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” Children born today may turn to us and ask: “What did you do in the warming?” US elected officials should lead Americans towards an answer we can give with pride: that we led the world back from the precipice of climate collapse and climate conflict.


Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

蓝天

环保节能有利于世界和平.

Blue Sky

Environmental Protection Day can be useful for world peace.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

后土

全球环境保护问题确实非常重要.这几年来,相关各方吵吵嚷嚷,开了一个又一个会议,但人类看到哪些切实有力的成果了吗?说到底,利益关切不能够最大限度的公平合理解决,这种吵嚷将继续下去.这里面的问题有:处于不同发展阶段的国家,面对环保问题优先考虑的不同,且都没有对错之分;技术开发与转让涉及的方方面面的利益博奕问题;各国居民思想观念及面对人类长期利益与自身短期利益的态度问题等等一系列复杂问题.这些都需要一个完整科学合理的系统,全面规划,调动全人类的积极性,才能够更好的解决.短期内没有这个可能.因此,全球环境恶化还将持续相当长的时间.除非突发一个全球性的大灾难,直接威胁了大部分人类的生存,才能够让人类猛醒.才能够让大部分政府将环境问题置于所有议题的首位.

God of the Earth

The problem of preserving our global environment is indeed extremely important. In the last few years, the various interrelated parties have been making a fuss, holding conference after conference; yet, has humankind seen any results that come across as feasible or forceful? Truth be known, if the concerns over profit cannot be resolved fairly and rationally, and on the largest of possible scales, this kind of hullabaloo will continue unabated. The relevant obstacles include the following set of complex issues: when countries at different levels of development confront environmental problems, their priorities differ, and, moreover, there is no division of right or wrong; the multi-faceted power games involving the development of technology; the thinking and perception of the citizens of every nation and their attitude concerning humankind's long-term benefit and their own short-term interests, etc. An all-encompassing scientific and rational systematization, a broadly circumspect plan, and a zeal that moves all of humankind are needed before we can better resolve these issues; however, in the short-term progress in these areas is impossible. Consequently, the degeneration of the world's environment will continue for a considerably long time, unless some enormous global catastrophe occurs which directly threatens the survival of most of humankind. Only such an event will shock humankind into waking up, and cause the majority of the world's governments to place environmental problems at the very top of their agendas.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

dansun2001

世界上只有一个地球。 地球是人类之母, 他对我们又养育之恩。 我们应该好好保护她呀。

dansun2001

There is only one earth in the world.Earth is our Mother who brings us up and cares us all the time. Logically and naturally We should protect our mother .

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

知己知彼

卡尔波普先生关于重大环保问题的评论不仅针对那些远至高原之巅的13亿中国人的命运,更关系到那些受其牵连的潜在人群。任何事关国内和国际安全的见解都应该兼顾其他参与者的利益以及思想,如果能从客观角度去分析中国高原地区气候变化的现象,就会发现高原气候异常问题的重要性,目前国际社会也针对此问题投入大量资源并实施一系列方案来维护生态系统。这对于中国如何看待这一问题以及其自身利益无疑提供了一个明确的信号。但是,很遗憾,波普先生在没有充分听取来自中国的声音的情况下,草率定论表示中国最终会因为追求短期经济效益而面临长期的的生态恶化灾难。我想请问波普先生这样的推测根据何在,毕竟有证据显示中国已将此问题上升到重要高度。所以,如果能结合波普先生的其他论述,并用以在中国及其他地区协助创建更具广泛意义的“新型经济生态合作”将会是对于这个具有普遍意义的命题的最好的探索,而决不是一味的发表悲观主义的论调。

Knowing the other

Carl Pope's paper focuses on an issue of critical importance not just to the 1.3 billion people living downstream from the Tibetan Plateau but also to all those who may be affected by resulting instability. National and international security considerations should be based on a firm understanding of other players' interests and perceptions. If one looks at official and academic Chinese discussions of the climate change on the Plateau, one will soon see that it has been given a clear pivotal role in national environmental security. Several plans devoting large amounts of resources to maintaining critical ecosystem functions have been announced and are already under implementation. This should give a clear signal of how China sees the situation and its own interests. Without exploring any Chinese perceptions of the issue, however, Mr Pope writes: "In the end, China may risk long-term ecological disaster in order to avert short-term economic upheaval." Please explain how this conclusion was derived. Given evidence of the priority that China has given to the issue, it would be more reasonable to take Mr Pope's other advice and assist China and the region in developing "a new kind of economic and ecological cooperation" in addressing this issue of common concern to such a vast proportion of humankind.
Andreas Wilkes

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

如何行动?

或许这又是新一波的地球毁灭危机的提前到来,拯救地球,亦或是拯救我们自身?

What are we to do about it?

Maybe this is a looming doomsday for our earth. Let's spring into action and save our earth, or save ourselves.