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Our Dangerous Mix of Climate Change and Resource Scarcity

Demand for oil, water, and other resources will soon outpace supply.

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 5:34 PM EDT

Heading for a Resource-Shock World

Tensions like these would be destined to grow by themselves because in so many areas supplies of key resources will not be able to keep up with demand. As it happens, though, they are not "by themselves." On this planet, a second major force has entered the equation in a significant way. With the growing reality of climate change, everything becomes a lot more terrifying.

Normally, when we consider the impact of climate change, we think primarily about the environment—the melting Arctic ice cap or Greenland ice shield, rising global sea levels, intensifying storms, expanding deserts, and endangered or disappearing species like the polar bear. But a growing number of experts are coming to realize that the most potent effects of climate change will be experienced by humans directly through the impairment or wholesale destruction of habitats upon which we rely for food production, industrial activities, or simply to live. Essentially, climate change will wreak its havoc on us by constraining our access to the basics of life: vital resources that include food, water, land, and energy. This will be devastating to human life, even as it significantly increases the danger of resource conflicts of all sorts erupting.

We already know enough about the future effects of climate change to predict the following with reasonable confidence:

* Rising sea levels will in the next half-century erase many coastal areas, destroying large cities, critical infrastructure (including roads, railroads, ports, airports, pipelines, refineries, and power plants), and prime agricultural land.

* Diminished rainfall and prolonged droughts will turn once-verdant croplands into dust bowls, reducing food output and turning millions into "climate refugees."

* More severe storms and intense heat waves will kill crops, trigger forest fires, cause floods, and destroy critical infrastructure.

No one can predict how much food, land, water, and energy will be lost as a result of this onslaught (and other climate-change effects that are harder to predict or even possibly imagine), but the cumulative effect will undoubtedly be staggering. In Resources Futures, Chatham House offers a particularly dire warning when it comes to the threat of diminished precipitation to rain-fed agriculture. "By 2020," the report says, "yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%" in some areas. The highest rates of loss are expected to be in Africa, where reliance on rain-fed farming is greatest, but agriculture in China, India, Pakistan, and Central Asia is also likely to be severely affected.

Heat waves, droughts, and other effects of climate change will also reduce the flow of many vital rivers, diminishing water supplies for irrigation, hydro-electricity power facilities, and nuclear reactors (which need massive amounts of water for cooling purposes). The melting of glaciers, especially in the Andes in Latin America and the Himalayas in South Asia, will also rob communities and cities of crucial water supplies. An expected increase in the frequency of hurricanes and typhoons will pose a growing threat to offshore oil rigs, coastal refineries, transmission lines, and other components of the global energy system.

The melting of the Arctic ice cap will open that region to oil and gas exploration, but an increase in iceberg activity will make all efforts to exploit that region's energy supplies perilous and exceedingly costly. Longer growing seasons in the north, especially Siberia and Canada's northern provinces, might compensate to some degree for the desiccation of croplands in more southerly latitudes. However, moving the global agricultural system (and the world's farmers) northward from abandoned farmlands in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, India, China, Argentina, and Australia would be a daunting prospect.

It is safe to assume that climate change, especially when combined with growing supply shortages, will result in a significant reduction in the planet's vital resources, augmenting the kinds of pressures that have historically led to conflict, even under better circumstances. In this way, according to the Chatham House report, climate change is best understood as a "threat multiplier... a key factor exacerbating existing resource vulnerability" in states already prone to such disorders.

Like other experts on the subject, Chatham House's analysts claim, for example, that climate change will reduce crop output in many areas, sending global food prices soaring and triggering unrest among those already pushed to the limit under existing conditions. "Increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as droughts, heat waves, and floods, will also result in much larger and frequent local harvest shocks around the world… These shocks will affect global food prices whenever key centers of agricultural production area are hit—further amplifying global food price volatility." This, in turn, will increase the likelihood of civil unrest.

When, for instance, a brutal heat wave decimated Russia's wheat crop during the summer of 2010, the global price of wheat (and so of that staple of life, bread) began an inexorable upward climb, reaching particularly high levels in North Africa and the Middle East. With local governments unwilling or unable to help desperate populations, anger over impossible-to-afford food merged with resentment toward autocratic regimes to trigger the massive popular outburst we know as the Arab Spring.

Many such explosions are likely in the future, Chatham House suggests, if current trends continue as climate change and resource scarcity meld into a single reality in our world. A single provocative question from that group should haunt us all: "Are we on the cusp of a new world order dominated by struggles over access to affordable resources?"

For the US intelligence community, which appears to have been influenced by the report, the response was blunt. In March, for the first time, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper listed "competition and scarcity involving natural resources" as a national security threat on a par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation.

"Many countries important to the United States are vulnerable to natural resource shocks that degrade economic development, frustrate attempts to democratize, raise the risk of regime-threatening instability, and aggravate regional tensions," he wrote in his prepared statement for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism."

There was a new phrase embedded in his comments: "resource shocks." It catches something of the world we're barreling toward, and the language is striking for an intelligence community that, like the government it serves, has largely played down or ignored the dangers of climate change. For the first time, senior government analysts may be coming to appreciate what energy experts, resource analysts, and scientists have long been warning about: the unbridled consumption of the world's natural resources, combined with the advent of extreme climate change, could produce a global explosion of human chaos and conflict. We are now heading directly into a resource-shock world.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.

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