There are still significant threats to global security despite the Cold War having ‘officially ended’ on 26th December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Tensions rose in the Cold War when either side misunderstood their enemy’s intentions, or made a mistake in interpreting an action, pursued their perceived national interests too strongly or made a mistake in brinkmanship. At each step the theoretical threat of annihilation was real, but the actual intent of either side to make an attack that would trigger massive retaliation was very low.
However, back then, neither side was facing the globally pervasive risks presented by Climate Change, and the effects of environmental degradation were not so well known.
Today, humanity faces several global existential threats whilst other regional risks have the potential to spark major, twenty-first century conflicts.
Global existential threats include:
- Unconstrained Climate Change arising from Global Warming – severely degrading environmental / ecological systems.
- Unconstrained economic degradation of natural resources and systems.
- Continued stockpiling and development of nuclear weapons and the risk of nuclear war.
- Continued research into manmade, synthetic pathogens and the risk of pandemic from accidental or deliberate release.
Regional risks include:
- Extreme weather events / changes in weather patterns arising from Climate Change due to Global Warming.
- Massive loss of biodiversity due to Climate Change or economic activities.
- Crises over the availability or degradation of water supplies arising from economic activities or as a result of Climate Change.
- Ideological or Developmental differences between Nation States driving conflict.
- Increasing National Debts and risk of financial collapse.
- Social instability / unrest, emergence of nationalistic / right-wing politics.
Climate Change and the risk to peace.
Scientists working for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been increasingly warning since 1990 that human emissions of greenhouse gases have been causing a degree of warming across the globe that is unprecedented over at least the past 10,000 years, and that failing to reduce those emissions will have a catastrophic effect on global climate and ecological systems. These emissions arise from economic activities including industrialised manufacturing, transport and agriculture.
The main sources of greenhouse gases in manufacturing and transport are the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas).
The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014) said that they were “… 95 percent certain that humans are the main cause of current global warming. In addition… the more human activities disrupt the climate, the greater the risks of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems, and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system….”
Those severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems include:
- Heat waves happening more often and lasting longer.
- Extreme precipitation events becoming more intense and frequent in many regions.
- Ocean waters continuing to warm and acidify.
- Rising global average sea levels.
Whole regions of the world could become uninhabitable for humans and many other species due to temperature rises and greatly reduced precipitation or sea-level rises.
The loss of food supplies on the land cannot be balanced by further exploitation of the global ocean.
In a worst-case model (RCP8.5):
- Surface temperature could rise by as much as 11°C by the end of the twenty-first century, including a 3-4°C rise in the UK.
- Arctic sea ice and near-surface permafrost could be substantially lost and glacier volumes decrease.
- Major drops in oceanic pH.
- Major extinctions of plants, animals and ocean-based life, as they are no longer able to adapt to the changing environment.
- Increased temperatures and reduced freshwater in many regions, leading to global risks to food security.
The lack of meaningful progress by nation states towards urgently reducing carbon emissions suggests that the worst-case model is now more likely.
Unless new technologies are found that can remove large volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period, climate change is “… irreversible on a multi-century to millennial timescale.”
Environmental Degradation and the risk to peace.
The existential threats from climate change are magnified by the direct degradation of ecosystems by economic activities including toxic pollution, eutrophication and deforestation.
For example, deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest is now running at around 14,000 km2, and up to 25% of the Amazon rainforest could have been cleared of trees by 2030 (1). Whilst the impact of such a loss would be devastating on species diversity in the Amazon, it would also accelerate climate change and reduce the availability of breathable oxygen.
Meanwhile, the eutrophication and acidification of waters is increasingly reducing photosynthesis by algae, other plants and phytoplankton. Pollution of both waters and the land is reducing the habitable space for humans and food production.
The IPCC reports are clear that the most severe impacts of Climate Change will be felt by lesser-developed / under-developed countries – ie those which to date have not embarked on large-scale, fossil fuel driven, industrialisation.
If those countries follow the same development path as the more (financially) affluent states today, the risks from climate change will continue to be magnified. But how will they be compensated if they forgo to the benefits of industrialisation that the more developed nations have enjoyed?
The more that developed nations fail to take actions to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and support people in lesser-developed / under-developed countries, the more pressures they will feel from migration and conflict.
The lines of future conflict and existential risks are now clear.
- Food and water supplies are becoming increasingly restricted or scarce, substantially increasing the risks of war.
- The Fifth IPCC report states that “… after 2050, the risk of more severe impacts increases… crop production [is] consistently and negatively affected by climate change in the future in low-latitude countries, while climate change may have positive or negative effects in northern latitudes.”
- Conflicts over access to resources and migration.
- International tensions are building.
- Low-lying populations are threatened by sea-level rise.
- Low-latitude peoples are threatened by falling crop yields, rising temperatures and scarcity of water.
- Oceanic food production is declining.
- Heat waves and extreme precipitation events are battering higher latitudes.
- Increased popularity of nationalistic ideologies in some developed countries.
- As they become more protective of their own ideologies and economies, how adaptable will they be to the increased demands from other states, as each tries to maintain the best position for its own population?
- Significant levels of national debt in many States.
- How will they fund the measures needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change?
- If they can’t afford to take those measures, and if the more (financially) affluent countries continue to avoid providing meaningful help, how long before they try to take what is needed by force.
- Increased use of disinformation and propaganda by Nation States, exploiting ideological and socio-political differences.
The current threat from nuclear weapons
The largest nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, UK and France) are still locked into policies of massive retaliation that will inhibit their willingness to attack each other directly. It is less clear how they might react if threatened by a smaller nuclear state that is facing an existential crisis and feels it has little to lose.
Smaller nuclear states facing existential pressures and yet unable to spread towards the larger nuclear powers, might seek advantage by attacking each other in a ‘limited nuclear exchange. Could the major global powers then avoid becoming embroiled in a hot war?
The current threat from bio-weapons
Will Nation States increasingly see the use of biological weapons as a ‘safer option’ than nuclear weapons?
Current investigations into the use of chemical weapons (Syria, Novichok in the UK) and attempts to positively identify the source of Covid-19, have shown how hard it is to identify the source of these agents/organisms.
A State facing global / regional existential risks might decide that it could use biological weapons against an enemy with ‘plausible deniability’. Biological weapons may offer new asynchronous warfare options in the face of those existential threats.
It is hard to see how future wars will be avoided while serious actions are not taken to limit greenhouse emissions in the ‘developed world’ and promote a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity across the globe.
1 – “Amazon Forests Facts” – WWF – https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/our_focus/forests_practice/deforestation_fronts2/deforestation_in_the_amazon/
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