This is the second part of a keynote paper prepared for the 11th Global Conference on Environment Management, held in Palampur last week.
A short-term geopolitical scenario
This though, is not a conference about the science and technology necessary to save us. It is about climate security – the geopolitical factors that arise from climate change that pose as great a threat in a shorter timescale.
If we know that the glaciers will be gone by 2035, and we can be pretty confident that the governments will NOT act soon enough to transform the lower-atmospheric CO2 concentrations, then this ceases to be a feat of engineering that must be achieved. Instead, it becomes a matter of politics, migration, cross-border conflict, and international intervention.
The precursor of most cross-border conflict is human migration. No region is more directly threatened by human migration than South Asia. The IPCC warns that “coastal areas, especially heavily populated mega-delta regions in South, East, and Southeast Asia, will be at greatest risk due to increased flooding from the sea and, in some mega-deltas, flooding from the rivers.”
Bangladesh in particular will be threatened by devastating floods, monsoons, melting glaciers, and tropical cyclones (originating in the Bay of Bengal), water contamination and ecosystem destruction caused by rising sea levels. The population of Bangladesh stands at 142 million today, and is projected to increase by approximately 100 million people 30 years, despite climate change and other environmental factors making the low-lying regions of the country uninhabitable.
Most of the displaced people will move inland, a migration that is expected to cause instability and friction with established communities as they compete for already scarce resources. Other migrants will seek to go abroad, creating heightened political tension not only in South Asia but in Europe, the US, and South-East Asia, as well.
India will struggle to cope with a surge of displaced people from Bangladesh, but they are not the only ones who will seek refuge there. Approximately four million people inhabit the small islands in the Bay of Bengal that are already being slowly swallowed by the rising sea. Most of these communities will have to be accommodated on the mainland sooner or later.
Many of the borders and territories, in the region are already contested, and this large-scale migration is going to fuel these differences. Add to this the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, radical Islamic political groups, and dire environmental insecurity, and there are clearly severe regional and potentially global consequences.
As climate change has its greatest impact on areas that are already challenged for resources, it is limiting the effectiveness of many of the current development projects financed by the international community even though they are increasingly important. The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of all overseas development assistance and concessional finance is devoted to activities that will be affected by climate change, but few of the projects adequately account for the impact that climate change will have. Consequently, dams are built on rivers that will dry up, and crops are planted in coastal areas that will be frequently flooded.
In Nepal, for example, the melting glaciers are leading to glacial lake outburst, where high energy flood waves reaching as much as 15 metres in height, destroy downstream settlements, dams, bridges, and other infrastructure. Millions of dollars in recent investment have been lost because the hydro-power and infrastructure design in Nepal largely fails to take these floods into account. Ultimately, this further stresses the country as it tries to preserve a fragile peace. Given its proximity to the conflict zone of Kashmir and the contested borders of China and India, an eruption of severe social or political turmoil in Nepal could have ramifications for the entire South Asian region.
I hope that I have managed to illustrate in sufficient detail, exactly why climate security is such a crucial subject for us all to grasp. In almost every part of the world, there are unique circumstances, that individually appear local, and of limited impact. However, the underlying trend of climate change exacerbates these to the point of significant social unrest which in turn accelerates the impact of climate change by making efforts to reduce it impossible and undermining those efforts that are made.