The prospect of global wars driven by climate change is not something often discussed publicly by our political leaders. But according to one of America's top military analysts, governments in the US and UK are already being briefed by their own military strategists about how to prepare for a world of mass famine, floods of refugees and even nuclear conflicts over resources.
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The prospect of global wars driven by climate change is not something often discussed publicly by our political leaders.
But according to one of America's top military analysts, governments in the US and UK are already being briefed by their own military strategists about how to prepare for a world of mass famine, floods of refugees and even nuclear conflicts over resources.
Gwynne Dyer is a military analyst and author who served in three navies and has held academic posts at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and at Oxford.
Speaking about his latest book, Climate Wars, he says there is a sense of suppressed panic from the scientists and military leaders. "Mostly it's about winners and losers, at least in the early phases of climate change," he said.
"If you're talking about 1 degree, 2 degrees hotter - not runaway stuff - but what we're almost certainly committed to over the next 30 or 40 years, there will be countries that get away relatively cost free in that scenario, particularly countries in the higher latitudes."
But he says that closer to the equator in the relatively arid zone - where Australia is situated - there will be very serious droughts.
"[There will be] huge falls in the amount of crops that you can grow because there isn't the rain and it's too hot," he said. "That will apply particularly to the Mediterranean... and so not just the north African countries, but also the ones on the northern side of the Mediterranean. "The ones in the European Union like Spain and Italy and Greece and the Balkans and Turkey are going to be suffering huge losses in their ability to support their populations. Climate refugees He says a fall in crops and food production means there will be refugees, people who are desperate. "It may mean the collapse in the global trade of food because while some countries still have enough, there is still a global food shortage," he said. "If you can't buy food internationally and you can't raise enough at home, what do you do? You move.
So refugee pressures - huge ones - are one of the things that drives these security considerations." In Climate Wars, even the most hopeful scenarios about the impact of climate change have hundreds of millions of people dying of starvation, mass displacement of people and conflict between countries competing for basic resources like water. "India and Pakistan are both nuclear-armed countries. All of the agriculture in Pakistan and all of the agriculture in northern India depend on glacier-fed rivers that come off the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau. Those glaciers are melting," Dr Dyer said.
"They're melting according to Chinese scientists to 7 per cent a year, which means they're half gone in 10 years. "India has a problem with this. Pakistan faces an absolutely lethal emergency because Pakistan is basically a desert with a braid of rivers running through it. "Those rivers all start with one exception in Indian-controlled territory and there's a complex series of deals between the two countries about who gets to take so much water out of the river. Those deals break down when there's not that much water in the rivers." And then you have got the prospect of a nuclear confrontation, Dr Dyer says.
"It's unthinkable but yet it's entirely possible. So these are the prices you start to pay if you get this wrong," he said. "Some of them, actually, I'm afraid we've already got them wrong in the sense that there is going to be some major climate change." Dr Dyer explains the least alarmist scenario for the next couple of decades still involves enormous pressures on the US border. "That border's going to be militarised. I think there's almost no question about it because the alternative is an inundation of the United States by what will be, effectively, climate refugees," he said. "They [US] are concerned actually about losing a lot of land and a lot of crop production within the United States itself. "A lot of Florida's basically about six inches above sea level - and the Mississippi River Delta, well we've already seen what one hurricane did there - plus of course many interventions overseas by the American armed forces as much bigger emergencies occur in much bigger parts of the world." Worst-case scenario
But the real insight into the US study is that the more severe climate change scenario is the one that analysts think is the more likely one. "And it's not just the analysts. I spent the past year doing a very high-speed self-education job on climate change but I think I probably talked to most of the senior people in the field in a dozen countries," Dr Dyer said.
"They're scared, they're really frightened. Things are moving far faster than their models predicted. "You may have the Arctic ocean free of ice entirely in five years' time, in the late summer. Nobody thought that would happen until about the 2040s - even a couple of years ago." Dr Dyer says there is a sense of things moving much faster, and the military are picking up on that. He also says we will be playing climate change catch-up in the next 30 years. "The threshold you don't want to cross, ever, is 2 degrees Celsius hotter than it was at the beginning of the 1990s," he said.
"That is a margin we have effectively already used up more than half of. It would require pretty miraculous cooperation globally and huge cuts in emissions." And if the world does not decarbonise by 2050, you don't want to be there, according to Dr Dyer. "My kids will and I don't think that is going to be a pleasant prospect at all, because once you go past 2 degrees - and you could get past 2 degrees by the 2040s without too much effort - things start getting out of control," he said. "The ocean starts giving back to the atmosphere the carbon dioxide it absorbed.
That world is a world where crop failures are normal. "Where, for example, Australia does not export food any more, it is hanging on to what it can still grow to feed its own people but that is about all that it is going to be able to do, and many countries can't even do that." He says China will take an enormous blow. "There is a study out from the Chinese Academy of Scientists and then swiftly disappeared again, but about two years ago, we predicted the maximum damage that would be done to China under foreseeable climate change in the 21st century was 38 per cent cut in food production," he said. "That is only about three-fifths of the food they now eat and there will be a lot more of them. "I think we will end up having to do things that at the moment nobody would consider doing like geo-engineering, ways of keeping the temperature down while we get our emissions down."
- Adapted from an interview first aired on The World Today, August 25.