Among the 21st-century threats posed by climate change — rising seas, melting permafrost and superstorms — European leaders are warning of a last-century risk they know all too well: War.
Focusing too narrowly on the environmental consequences of global warming underestimates the military threats, top European and United Nations officials said at a global security conference in Munich this weekend. Their warnings follow the conclusions of defense and intelligence agencies that climate change could trigger resource and border conflicts.
“Climate change is a threat multiplier that leads to social upheaval and possibly even armed conflict,” the UN’s top climate official, Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, said at the conference, which was attended by the U.S. secretaries of defense and homeland security, James Mattis and John Kelly.
Even as European Union countries struggle to assimilate millions of African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees, security officials are bracing for more of the same in the future. Secretary General Antonio Guterra named climate change and population growth as the two most serious “megatrends” threatening international peace and stability.
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“Ground zero” for armed conflict over the climate will be the Arctic, where record-high temperatures are melting ice and revealing natural resources that some countries might be willing to fight for, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto said on a panel.
“We have already seen flag planting and already some quarrels on the borderlines,” Niinisto said, pointing to new Russian military bases on its Arctic border. “Tensions will rise.”
The Arctic climate paradox — where countries could fight for rights to extract the very fossil fuels that would cause even more global warming — underscores energy’s role as a cause and potential moderator of climate change, according to Niinisto.
For Russia, the world’s biggest energy supplier, European nations switching to renewables represents an economic threat. At the same time, European over-reliance on Russian energy exposes them to coercion, according to Kelly Gallagher-Sims, a former climate and energy adviser to President Barack Obama.
“Climate change is already exacerbating existing stresses that contribute to instability and insecurity,” Gallagher-Sims told Bloomberg last week before leading a policy meeting on Arctic security at the Fletcher School at Tufts University near Boston. “The main relationship between renewable energy and trans-Atlantic security” is that clean power “permits Europe to rely less on Russian gas,” she said.
For their part, Russian leaders in Munich said they want peaceful coexistence with Europe and will abide by the Paris accord on climate change — even if it’s unlikely they’ll try convincing U.S. President Donald Trump to do the same.
It’s not clear when and if Trump will make good on his frequent campaign promises to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, a 2015 UN agreement to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions that was adopted by nearly 200 countries. Since he took office, the administration has rolled back U.S. rules to combat climate change and eased restrictions on fossil-fuel companies.
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U.S. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the committee on the environment and public works, told officials in the Bavarian capital they may have to fight to preserve the 2015 Paris agreement from global warming skeptics in the White House.
“The response of the international community will be significant,” Whitehouse said. While the probability of abandoning Paris may be small, they “decrease further if the response of the international community” to the U.S. “is not only, don’t you dare but, that there’ll be consequences in other areas” if you leave.