ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

The Age of Consequences

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The thing I like best about “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change” is a quote from Thomas C. Schelling:

… a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered looks strange; what looks strange is therefore improbable; what seems improbable need not be considered seriously

“The Ages of Consequences” is a report written by people who are or were advising key politicians in the US, or are in key positions at renowned research institutes. Currently, we do live in the “age of consequences” — bad things are happening and are happening very quickly. More quickly than we like to think. So the goal of this report is not to estimate what is with highest probability going to happen, but to look at the full range of things that seem plausible. Knowing this, it is not a surprise that the scenarios in this report are called expected, severe, and catastrophic. I’ve actually never read the apocalypse part of the bible. But what the catastrophic scenario looks like must come fairly close, which is the thing I like least about this report.

The catastrophic scenario, with average global temperatures increasing by 5.6°C by 2100, finds strong and surprising intersections between the two great security threats of the day—global climate change and international terrorism waged by Islamist extremists.

Further interesting points raised in this report include:

  • Perhaps the most worrisome problems associated with rising temperatures and sea levels are from large-scale migrations of people —- both inside nations and across existing national borders.

  • The term “global climate change” is misleading in that many of the effects will vary dramatically from region to region.

  • A few countries may benefit from climate change in the short term, but there will be no “winners.”

  • Climate change effects will aggravate existing international crises and problems.

  • We lack rigorously tested data or reliable modeling to determine with any sense of certainty the ultimate path and pace of temperature increase or sea level rise associated with climate change in the decades ahead [see the post on measuring things].

Focus on Water

There is a rather interesting section focussing on how climate change effects water resources

As noted in the historical survey in the next section of this report, there is a long record of states dealing with scarcity of water. Given that history, it’s not surprising that much has been written on the subject, including the relationship between access to water and conflict. This body of literature is important, both because water scarcity is predicted to be one consequence of global warming and because it affects our understanding of the climate change debate.

The historical record shows that water scarcity has resulted in both conflict and cooperation. The Environmental Change and Security Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson Center highlighted this dichotomy that environmental challenges such as climate change can threaten or bolster human security. “These factors can contribute to conflict or exacerbate other causes such as poverty, migration, and infectious diseases,” the group stated. “However, managing environmental issues and natural resources can also build confidence and contribute to peace by facilitating cooperation across lines of tension.”

In 1991, Joyce Starr published a landmark article in Foreign Policy titled “Water Wars.” The author warned that water shortages threatened conflict throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East. Many related articles and studies about armed clashes and other conflicts surrounding access to water followed. Peter Gleick’s 2000 chronology, for example, identifies water as a factor in at least 42 violent conflicts that have occurred worldwide since the beginning of the last century. However, Gleick’s chronology includes cases in which adversaries have employed water as a means of attack, such as when they bomb dams or poison wells. Other scholars have identified as few as seven cases of acute, water-related, trans-boundary conflicts—with exchanges of fire occurring in only four of them, including two between Israel and Syria.

There are also “water wars” skeptics. One report claimed that the last time parties fought a military conflict expressly over water could be when the Mesopotamian cities of Lagash and Umma battled each other 4,500 years ago. Noting that governments have signed thousands of international agreements regarding water issues, Sandra Postel and Aaron Wolf wrote that, in the case of water, “the history of cooperation, creativity and ingenuity is infinitely more rich than that of acute conflict.”

Scholars involved with the “Basins at Risk” project at Oregon State University—which studies developments relating to the Nile, Mekong, Euphrates, Amu Darya, Syr Darya, and Ganges—concluded that water scarcity does not increase the likelihood of interstate conflicts. Nevertheless, they maintain that tensions surrounding shared river basins can characterize relations between nations and undermine cooperation in other areas. As a result, governments may be more likely to turn to unilateral development projects, such as dams, that control water flow across international borders. Under favorable conditions, however, dialogue over water can promote cooperation and prevent conflict. For example, discussions between India and Pakistan over the Indus River led to the resumption of talks over other bilateral concerns. In other cases, trans-boundary water agreements and institutions have proven resilient even in the face of conflicts over other issues—as shown by the relationship between Israel and Jordan, the Mekong Committee, and the Indus River Commission.

This absence of a clear link between conflict and water may explain why some analysts are reluctant to systematically link environmental issues to national security more broadly.

Quite frequently this report mentions a phrase I learned from a math prof at Waterloo, whose son wrote this interesting little book: “The tipping point

Written by Claus

February 26th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

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2 Responses to 'The Age of Consequences'

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  1. Am I the only one writing comments?! Anyway, thanks a lot for your interesting posts in your blog. Working on that topic on a daily basis but very hands-on and limited on a European to local perspective, it’s very helpful to get some fresh input from outside.


    28 Feb 08 at 8:30 am

  2. J, It’s wickedly awesome that you obviously read this block, and also participate actively by writing comments. You can rest assured, the stats show there are some other readers, so far not too many, but you are not alone! Thanks for writing! Keep on rocking, Claus


    4 Mar 08 at 1:51 am

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