Domino Effect of Climate Change

TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 1, 2009) – Climate change is a challenge for all the world’s nations, bringing rising sea levels and natural disasters to parts of the globe that lead to crop failures, famine and a struggle over scarce resources. Experts say that when if the world stays on its current course, the domino effect of climate change will lead to political instability, armed conflict and national security issues even for better-positioned nations.

Climate change, experts warn, doesn’t just mean that the world will get hotter, but tensions between people will too.

The dire warning – and the call for nations to address the threat multipliers caused by climate change – took center stage Monday at the University of South Florida in a forum organized by the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate. The forum featuring former Sens. John Warner (R-Virginia) and Bob Graham, (D-Tampa), retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn and USF Professor Thomas Crisman is part of a national series of discussions organized by Pew which brings leading national political, military and academic thinkers together in a call for action.

While acknowledging that the societal, political and security problems caused by climate change have yet to fully materialized, the panel warned that left unchecked the dynamics will bring about global conflict.

“We have major associations between climate and collapsed societies,” said Crisman, who has researched climate change and water issues both in Florida and internationally during a more than 30-year career. “If you have collapsed societies, you are going to have to fix them militarily one way or the other.”

While researchers in recent years have become more certain that climate change is occurring, what is only now beginning to register on the international radar screen is the subsequent effects of climate change that extend beyond rising seas and natural disasters. The CIA’s National Intelligence Council reports that as many as 800 million more people will face water or cropland scarcity in the next 15 years.

Struggling nations where those disasters can cause famine are particularly vulnerable to political instability, conflict over scarce resources and mass migrations. Those dynamics can lead to terrorism as groups cast blame on industrialized nations as the root cause of the climate problems and collapsed governments are vulnerable to falling into the hands of extremists, McGinn said.

While more stable industrialized nations may be able to adapt to the social effects of climate change, what could undermine it all is energy dependence on volatile regions of the world, the panel warned.

 “America’s energy posture constitutes a serious and urgent threat to our national security by every measure – militarily, diplomatically, economically,” McGinn said.

Global Flashpoints

What experts fear is that the stresses on food and water supplies become the tipping point for fragile nations. Earlier this year, the Center for Naval Analysis, a federally-funded research and development center serving the Department of the Navy and other defense agencies, released an exhaustive report compiled by a panel of retired generals and admirals, which concluded that if climate change trends continued, some of the hardest hit nations are the very ones which are breeding grounds for extremists.


The group said climate change acted as “threat multiplier” in some of the world’s most volatile regions.


Take, for example, Kashmir, where climate change has brought about receding glaciers, declining rain and erratic snowfalls in the state that lies between India and Pakistan.  Kashmir’s once-fertile fields have turned arid, and there’s been a 40-percent drop in food production in a region already considered one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.

With 20 percent of the world’s population living in coastal areas, sea-level rises could displace more than 400 million people, the Pew project reports.


“These phenomenon based on the trends of climate change are going happen more frequently and in more widely dispersed places and with much greater intensity and longevity than what we are seeing now,” McGinn told a crowd of more than 200 at the forum.


McGinn said the focus needs to be on preventing, mitigating and adapting to changes to avert major national security issues. In addition to political instability and skirmishes over natural resources, the military is also concerned that rising sea levels and natural disasters pose a threat to the United State’s coastal military bases, which is a particular concern for military interests in Florida.


The immediate challenge domestically, Graham noted, is that climate change remains a difficult issue for the American public to grasp and more effort needs to be made to educate and communicate what climate change means to them. Graham – a former Florida governor who served three terms in the U.S. Senate, said make the connections between environmental, energy and security challenges is key to public understanding.


Warner, a former U.S. Secretary of the Navy and five-term senator, said his message in the national tour is simple: a call to action.


“If there is one message that I leave you is that America cannot do nothing,” he said. “To the contrary, we’ve got to step out and lead.”


Watch a webcast of this important discussion here.



Related Links

For more information on the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, click here.


For more information on the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions, click here.


To read a recent research by USF Professor Thomas Crisman’s on climate change, click here.


To read a special report on climate change and national security from the Council on Foreign Relations, click here.


To read the Center for Naval Analysis study on national security and climate change, click here.


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded more than $360 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2007/2008. The university offers 224 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 46,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.