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Climate-Related Security Predictions Coming True In Pakistan

By Matthew O. Berger

27 August, 2010
Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON - Analysts have been warning for several years that the impacts of climate change directly relate to the national security of the U.S. and other countries, but the link has never been so clear as it is today in northwest Pakistan.

The security implications of climate change first got official U.S. government attention this February, in the Quadrennial Defence Review, a four-yearly report from the Pentagon on the direction of national security strategy.

Noting rising sea levels, water shortages, melting Arctic ice, and extreme weather events, the review said that "while climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world."

These implications had been discussed by other experts much earlier. Most notable was a 2007 report from the think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which found that, when compared to other national security challenge, climate change "may represent a great or a greater" test. Their conclusions, however, were based on scenarios and exercises.

In Pakistan, where unprecedented floods have killed 1,500 people and displaced millions more, those scenarios are now reality.

When floods swept through the country in late July, they pushed some desperate refugees right into the arms of militant groups in the northern regions of the country, where government aid was too slow or too little.

The same phenomena occurred in the wake of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, leading to greater legitimacy for militant groups. This might happen again, with implications for not only Karachi but the security interests of every country with interests in the region.

This displacement of people and stress on government resources and legitimacy was predicted in earlier models of climate change-induced emergencies.

A report by the Congressional Research Service on "security and the environment in Pakistan," released Aug. 3 - before the floods reached the level of international disaster - listed some potential ways in which climate change has been predicted to undermine security. Among the threats were stress on weak and fragile states, rising tensions form refugee migration and the creation of conditions that "foment extremists or terrorists".

"They do have a fragile governmental situation [in Pakistan] and this flood poses risks to the central government system," former U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Navy John Warner told IPS in a phone interview. "And this indeed affects our national security" because of the close links between the U.S. and Pakistan.

In the past week, Pakistan has reportedly tried to clamp down on charities tied to Islamic militants, while those militants have threatened to attack international aid workers.

The massive migrations and displacement right now in Pakistan are occurring in the midst of an ongoing "battle for the hearts and minds of Pakistani citizens, especially in northern Pakistan," says Jay Gulledge, senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a non- resident fellow at CNAS.

"We don't know yet what the outcome is, but we are seeing pieces of these security predictions play out, and it's disconcerting," says Gulledge, who was a co-author on the 2007 report detailing the security implications of climate change.

Whether these outcomes can ultimately be attributed to climate change is still a matter of some - though increasingly less - debate.

For Warner, it's "a bit early to ascribe this flood situation to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

"Let's just wait for the scientists to judge that," he says.

Many of those scientists already have.

The floods, as well as the heat wave in Russia, have been attributed by some meteorologists to a dome of high atmospheric pressure which has diverted the jet stream further south than usual.

"Instead of dropping the rain where it normally would in Russia the jet stream came down to Pakistan," explains Gulledge. Combined with the rainfall from the seasonal monsoon in south Asia, this meant too much rain for Pakistan and too little for Russia.

"The question is: is that the kind of thing we would think would be a more common event because of climate change, and my answer is yes...We've seen these kinds of things happen in models," he told IPS.

Indeed, reviews of the climate science, such as that by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have found that in a climate change-affected world there will be a sharp increase in incidences of extreme weather events.

"And so it's not surprising that you would see this when the world is having its warmest year on record," says Gulledge. "It's not unequivocal but the pattern is what we would expect to see."

The connections between climate change-induced events and security issues go beyond the potential for bolstering militant groups. Reports out of Pakistan Wednesday said that supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan were significantly disrupted by the floods.

And the connections can be seen in other places around the globe.

Warner, who works with the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate on the climate change-security link, points to Darfur, where the ongoing conflict is often attributed to drought, and to rising sea levels threatening not only low-lying island countries but strategic military bases on those islands.

"You can move around the world and find instances like these," he says.

In Pakistan, the floods - often linked in part to increasing glacier melt from the Himalayas - are expected to be followed by drought as that glacier melt gets smaller. This could lead, somewhat ironically, to conflict over scarce water resources in the region, especially between Pakistan and India, according to a Jun. 1 Congressional Research Service report on key developments in Pakistan.

The next place where this sort of situation might emerge, though, could be Yemen, Gulledge says. Yemen cannot afford desalinisation like Saudi Arabia can, and is running out of groundwater to pump, but being able to provide that water is a "great service and source of credibility for the government".

CIA analysts said Tuesday that al Qaeda offshoots in Yemen currently pose the most direct threat to U.S. security. "If al Qaeda can find ways to get water to people then they are going to win that battle for the hearts and minds," Gulledge says.

© 2010 IPS North America