The Coming Resource Wars
by Michael Klare
www.alternet.org, March 11, 2006
It's official: the era of resource wars
is upon us. In a major London address, British Defense Secretary
John Reid warned that global climate change and dwindling natural
resources are combining to increase the likelihood of violent
conflict over land, water and energy. Climate change, he indicated,
"will make scarce resources, clean water, viable agricultural
land even scarcer" -- and this will "make the emergence
of violent conflict more rather than less likely."
Although not unprecedented, Reid's prediction
of an upsurge in resource conflict is significant both because
of his senior rank and the vehemence of his remarks. "The
blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is
a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see
unfolding in Darfur," he declared. "We should see this
as a warning sign."
Resource conflicts of this type are most
likely to arise in the developing world, Reid indicated, but the
more advanced and affluent countries are not likely to be spared
the damaging and destabilizing effects of global climate change.
With sea levels rising, water and energy becoming increasingly
scarce and prime agricultural lands turning into deserts, internecine
warfare over access to vital resources will become a global phenomenon.
Reid's speech, delivered at the prestigious
Chatham House in London (Britain's equivalent of the Council on
Foreign Relations), is but the most recent expression of a growing
trend in strategic circles to view environmental and resource
effects -- rather than political orientation and ideology -- as
the most potent source of armed conflict in the decades to come.
With the world population rising, global consumption rates soaring,
energy supplies rapidly disappearing and climate change eradicating
valuable farmland, the stage is being set for persistent and worldwide
struggles over vital resources. Religious and political strife
will not disappear in this scenario, but rather will be channeled
into contests over valuable sources of water, food and energy.
Prior to Reid's address, the most significant
expression of this outlook was a report prepared for the U.S.
Department of Defense by a California-based consulting firm in
October 2003. Entitled "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario
and Its Implications for United States National Security,"
the report warned that global climate change is more likely to
result in sudden, cataclysmic environmental events than a gradual
(and therefore manageable) rise in average temperatures. Such
events could include a substantial increase in global sea levels,
intense storms and hurricanes and continent-wide "dust bowl"
effects. This would trigger pitched battles between the survivors
of these effects for access to food, water, habitable land and
"Violence and disruption stemming
from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose
a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed
to today," the 2003 report noted. "Military confrontation
may be triggered by a desperate need for natural resources such
as energy, food and water rather than by conflicts over ideology,
religion or national honor."
Until now, this mode of analysis has failed
to command the attention of top American and British policymakers.
For the most part, they insist that ideological and religious
differences -- notably, the clash between values of tolerance
and democracy on one hand and extremist forms of Islam on the
other -- remain the main drivers of international conflict. But
Reid's speech at Chatham House suggests that a major shift in
strategic thinking may be under way. Environmental perils may
soon dominate the world security agenda.
This shift is due in part to the growing
weight of evidence pointing to a significant human role in altering
the planet's basic climate systems. Recent studies showing the
rapid shrinkage of the polar ice caps, the accelerated melting
of North American glaciers, the increased frequency of severe
hurricanes and a number of other such effects all suggest that
dramatic and potentially harmful changes to the global climate
have begun to occur. More importantly, they conclude that human
behavior -- most importantly, the burning of fossil fuels in factories,
power plants, and motor vehicles -- is the most likely cause of
these changes. This assessment may not have yet penetrated the
White House and other bastions of head-in-the-sand thinking, but
it is clearly gaining ground among scientists and thoughtful analysts
around the world.
For the most part, public discussion of
global climate change has tended to describe its effects as an
environmental problem -- as a threat to safe water, arable soil,
temperate forests, certain species and so on. And, of course,
climate change is a potent threat to the environment; in fact,
the greatest threat imaginable. But viewing climate change as
an environmental problem fails to do justice to the magnitude
of the peril it poses. As Reid's speech and the 2003 Pentagon
study make clear, the greatest danger posed by global climate
change is not the degradation of ecosystems per se, but rather
the disintegration of entire human societies, producing wholesale
starvation, mass migrations and recurring conflict over resources.
"As famine, disease, and weather-related
disasters strike due to abrupt climate change," the Pentagon
report notes, "many countries' needs will exceed their carrying
capacity" -- that is, their ability to provide the minimum
requirements for human survival. This "will create a sense
of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression"
against countries with a greater stock of vital resources. "Imagine
eastern European countries, struggling to feed their populations
with a falling supply of food, water, and energy, eyeing Russia,
whose population is already in decline, for access to its grain,
minerals, and energy supply."
Similar scenarios will be replicated all
across the planet, as those without the means to survival invade
or migrate to those with greater abundance -- producing endless
struggles between resource "haves" and "have-nots."
It is this prospect, more than anything,
that worries John Reid. In particular, he expressed concern over
the inadequate capacity of poor and unstable countries to cope
with the effects of climate change, and the resulting risk of
state collapse, civil war and mass migration. "More than
300 million people in Africa currently lack access to safe water,"
he observed, and "climate change will worsen this dire situation"
-- provoking more wars like Darfur. And even if these social disasters
will occur primarily in the developing world, the wealthier countries
will also be caught up in them, whether by participating in peacekeeping
and humanitarian aid operations, by fending off unwanted migrants
or by fighting for access to overseas supplies of food, oil, and
When reading of these nightmarish scenarios,
it is easy to conjure up images of desperate, starving people
killing one another with knives, staves and clubs -- as was certainly
often the case in the past, and could easily prove to be so again.
But these scenarios also envision the use of more deadly weapons.
"In this world of warring states," the 2003 Pentagon
report predicted, "nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable."
As oil and natural gas disappears, more and more countries will
rely on nuclear power to meet their energy needs -- and this "will
accelerate nuclear proliferation as countries develop enrichment
and reprocessing capabilities to ensure their national security."
Although speculative, these reports make
one thing clear: when thinking about the calamitous effects of
global climate change, we must emphasize its social and political
consequences as much as its purely environmental effects. Drought,
flooding and storms can kill us, and surely will -- but so will
wars among the survivors of these catastrophes over what remains
of food, water and shelter. As Reid's comments indicate, no society,
however affluent, will escape involvement in these forms of conflict.
We can respond to these predictions in
one of two ways: by relying on fortifications and military force
to provide some degree of advantage in the global struggle over
resources, or by taking meaningful steps to reduce the risk of
cataclysmic climate change.
No doubt there will be many politicians
and pundits -- especially in this country -- who will tout the
superiority of the military option, emphasizing America's preponderance
of strength. By fortifying our borders and sea-shores to keep
out unwanted migrants and by fighting around the world for needed
oil supplies, it will be argued, we can maintain our privileged
standard of living for longer than other countries that are less
well endowed with instruments of power. Maybe so. But the grueling,
inconclusive war in Iraq and the failed national response to Hurricane
Katrina show just how ineffectual such instruments can be when
confronted with the harsh realities of an unforgiving world. And
as the 2003 Pentagon report reminds us, "constant battles
over diminishing resources" will "further reduce [resources]
even beyond the climatic effects."
Military superiority may provide an illusion
of advantage in the coming struggles over vital resources, but
it cannot protect us against the ravages of global climate change.
Although we may be somewhat better off than the people in Haiti
and Mexico, we, too, will suffer from storms, drought and flooding.
As our overseas trading partners descend into chaos, our vital
imports of food, raw materials and energy will disappear as well.
True, we could establish military outposts in some of these places
to ensure the continued flow of critical materials -- but the
ever-increasing price in blood and treasure required to pay for
this will eventually exceed our means and destroy us. Ultimately,
our only hope of a safe and secure future lies in substantially
reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases and working with the
rest of the world to slow the pace of global climate change.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace
and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.,
and the author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences
of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency.