What will happen when the rivers and lakes dry up in a region and there isn’t enough clean water to go around? What will happen when glaciers have melted away and crops to the south shrivel and die because the lack of runoff has made the earth too dry for them to grow? What will happen when rising sea levels force people to move away from their coastal homes?
Sadly, the likely answer is war.
A recent report from the German Advisory Council on Global Change warns world leaders that climate change could increase tensions and cause conflicts around the globe, much of it stemming from worsening water and food shortages. This, in turn, would lead to environmental refugees who must search to find new places to live.
And because of a lack of infrastructure, stability and resources, the developing world is most at risk for such climate-related conflict. In fact, many experts view climate change as a "threat multiplier." It is likely to intensify instability around the world by aggravating water shortages, food insecurity, disease and flooding — all things that lead to forced migration.
This is alarming because, as noted in the report, many of the worst effects of climate change are expected in regions where fragile governments are least capable of responding to them.
The German report points out several areas of potential climate conflict.
- Africa's Sahel region: Climate change is expected to result in water scarcities, drought and crop failures. This situation would worsen tensions in a region already burdened by failing governments and civil wars, such as the situation in Sudan.
- The Indian subcontinent: Shrinking glaciers threaten vital water supplies, while changes to the monsoon season will affect agriculture and rising seas threaten millions of people living in coastal settlements. Waves of hungry refugees would only increase conflict in an area where there is already tension and instability.
- The Caribbean and Central America: More powerful hurricanes could overwhelm government capacities in impoverished island states and Central American nations.
But there is hope in the midst of these dire predictions. The potential for conflict only emphasizes the urgent need for a united global approach to climate change. Rather than allow climate change to tear us apart, we can use it as an issue over which to unite, coordinate and develop solutions for a healthier and more peaceful future.