Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the national security implications of climate change

Over the next few weeks there will be a greater-than-usual amount of attention in the media to climate change issues as a result of the big "climate summit" meeting in Copenhagen this month (the meeting is more properly known as the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC COP, but that's quite the acronym - no wonder the media prefers climate summit). The Copenhagen COP has been on the radar of the climate change research and policymaking communities for a couple years now, because it represents the first one in almost a decade where the US is not represented by the Bush administration.  And when Obama was elected and embraced Al Gore's "climate crisis" message, the excitement about Copenhagen ramped up considerably.

Expectations became lowered over recent months as the Obama administration proceeded cautiously on climate policy, but there's still some optimism that some progress will be made toward establishing worldwide, binding emission reduction targets for greenhouse gases (GHGs). I am not terribly optimistic that (a) agreement will be reached or, if it is, that (b) the global community will act on it. The Kyoto Protocol contained very modest emissions reduction targets, but few countries are on track to meet them. Some countries have made an effort to meet them but are falling short; others, particularly Canada, simply reneged on their Kyoto signatures. 

For a number of years now I've been studying and considering the implications of anthropogenic climate change and natural climate variability on people's livelihoods and well-being. Most of my empirical research these days focuses on local- or regional-scale problems, and I am especially interested in understanding how households and communities adapt to climate-related stresses. I also do studies from time to time on the implications of climate change in terms of national security, a habit that holds over from my days in the foreign service, I guess.

There are many bogeyman scenarios about climate change floating around out there, some people suggesting that climate change will stimulate famines, conflict, pestilence and global wars - Old Testament meets Thomas Malthus kind of stuff. While such outcomes are possible, it does not mean they are plausible, let alone likely, and so I tend to steer away from such thinking (but if you're interested, check out Gwynn Dyer's latest book "Climate Wars", whose title pretty much says it all). That said, there are some very real implications for international security if nothing is done to change the present course we're on in terms of GHG emissions. Here's an op-ed that ran in today's Ottawa Citizen that summarizes my views on the security implications for Canada, should you be interested. Something useful to come out of Copenhagen would be a nice Christmas gift for us all this year. 

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