11/28/2014 12:45 EST | Updated 01/28/2015 05:59 EST

Not Dealing With Climate Change Endangers More Than the Planet


It was a bizarre meeting in a southern Sudanese supply camp a few years ago, when the civil war between north and south Sudan was slowly winding down. My wife and I were having a drink at a crudely constructed bar when another man, American, approached us and asked what we were doing "in this godforsaken place."

There was something different about him -- a keenness and a fulsome awareness of what was happening in that entire region of Africa. He fascinated us with his knowledge and penetrating insights. It was further into the conversation when he finally conceded that he was an American Intelligence officer, attempting to acquire information regarding mass migrations of people looking for food and water.

"What in all the world are you doing here?" I asked sincerely. Hesitating momentarily, he finally said, "We're studying the effects of climate change in this part of the world and what it's going to mean to the future security of the region, and maybe even to America." We were stunned, and yet it all made sense. Without the means to live, entire populations are capable of moving across borders in search of necessities, fighting other communities for resources, and, at times, become susceptible to the ideologies of militant organizations.

It was back in the 1980s when the United Nations talked of how the massive Lake Chad would dry up over the next few decades and that conflict in the region of Darfur would be an inevitable result. That insight turned out to be prescient -- the lake is as dry as a boneyard today and the Darfur conflict has been atrocious enough to arouse the interest of the International Criminal Court.

As prosperous governments continue in their retreat from the kind of global commitment required to deal effectively with dire poverty, women's empowerment, health and educational infrastructure, they inevitably leave the world a more troubled place. That threat is compounded multiple times by the world's nations refusing to deal seriously with the challenge of climate change. The world's desperately poor and vulnerable hardly have the ability to rise to the level of serious carbon emitters or ocean polluters, and yet it is the countries in which they live that suffer the greatest fallouts of climate change. Rainy seasons come later and later, water tables dry up, disease runs rampant, soil deteriorates so badly that crops can no longer be sustained.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lately distributed a warning implying that global security will be placed at great risk as long as we continue to tolerate melting sea ice, the disappearance of coral reefs, heavy rains in some regions couple with drought in others, and the drastic loss of crop yields. "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," said the chair of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri.

The clearest indication of how serious things have become is the prevalence of humanitarian disasters -- most driven by changes in the environment. And yet this is occurring at the same time as both international relief and development targets are repeatedly missed. The result isn't just unneeded deaths in places like Sudan or Somalia, but the decline of Western crops that were once a staple to our economy -- wheat being the greatest casualty.

It might be difficult for us to conceive of the pollutants emerging from our cars becoming the cause for disaster a world away, but it is a reality that is growing to alarming levels. Yet the devastation won't remain in those far-off regions. Massive wildfires in Australia and America, the onset of draught in California and Western Canada, and terrifying flooding, not just in Pakistan but Pennsylvania, will bring imposing challenges.

The UN report warned for the first time that the cumulative effects of climate change, economic inequality, and poverty could lead to war, massive migrations, and large regional conflicts.

This is precisely what that American Intelligence agent stated in our meeting in Sudan -- climate change will lead to insecurity, and insecurity will lead to conflict. He was right and we are only starting to get our heads around it. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it:

"Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all."

Perhaps we have been approaching this all wrong. The greatest threat to human insecurity might not be a blusterous Putin, a deranged ISIS, or a toxic Middle East. It is our own inability to take climate change seriously enough to keeping all these problems from eventually visiting our shores and communities.


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