CLIMATE CHANGE: A NEW FACTOR IN
Strategy (December 2007), Global Forces 2007
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
What we face today is a climate crisis that has arisen due to the relentless build‑up of
planet‑warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The ocean-atmosphere system that
controls the world’s climate has become vulnerable to adverse change. For long, global
warming had not been taken seriously, and even the few who did see its threat potential,
viewed the matter as simply an environmental or economic issue. Climate security is a new
concept, which acknowledges that global warming carries international and national security
implications. The most severe effects of climate change are likely to occur where states are
too poor or fragile to respond or to adapt adequately. If the world is to control or minimise
the likely major geopolitical and human-security consequences, climate change needs to be
elevated beyond scientific discourse to a strategic challenge requiring concrete counteraction
on the basis of a broad international consensus.
Intra-state and inter-state crises over water and food shortages, inundation of low-lying
areas, or recurrent droughts, hurricanes or flooding may lead to large displacements of
citizens and mass migrations, besides exacerbating ethnic or economic divides in societies.
It is thus important to examine the risks of global warming, including potential situations
in which climatic variations could be a catalyst for conflict within or between states. What
climate-change effects, for example, could destabilise the geopolitical environment and
trigger resource-related disputes or wars? Would resource-rich states seek to build virtual
fortresses around their national boundaries to preserve their advantage and insulate
themselves from the competition and conflict elsewhere? How would climate change
impinge on military operations?
Risk assessment is an essential component of strategic planning. Such assessment can help
focus attention on the key elements of climate security in order to evolve appropriate policy
responses to safeguard broader national security.
The broader context
Despite extensive research since the early 1990s, the extent of future climate change remains
uncertain and difficult to project. To some, global warming, far from causing gradual,
centuries-spanning change, may be beginning to push the climate to a tipping point. There
is no scientific evidence yet that the global climatic system is close to a critical threshold.
But there is ample evidence of accelerated global warming and the potential for adverse
security‑related effects resulting from unwelcome changes in climate.
The degree and pace of future climate change will depend on four factors:
(i) the extent of the energy- and development-related increase of greenhouse gases and
aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere
(ii) the impact of deforestation, land use, animal agriculture and other anthropogenic factors
on climate variation
(iii) the impact of natural influences (including from volcanic activity and changes in the
intensity of the sun) on climate variation
(iv) the extent to which temperature, precipitation, ocean level and other climatic features
react to changes in greenhouse-gas emissions, aerosol concentrations and other
elements in the atmosphere.
For example, clouds of aerosol particles from biomass burning and fossil-fuel consumption
are contributing to the accelerated thawing of glaciers. While aerosol particles play a
cooling role by reflecting sunlight back into space, they also absorb solar radiation and
thus contribute to global warming. According to a study by Veerabhadran Ramanathan
et al, which employed general circulation model simulations, the vertically extended
atmospheric brown clouds observed over the Indian Ocean and Asia, along with the increase
in anthropogenic greenhouse gases, ‘may be sufficient to account for the observed retreat of
the Himalayan glaciers’.1
The climate crisis is a consequence of the rapid pace of change in the contemporary world.
Technological forces are playing a greater role in shaping geopolitics than at any other
time in history. Political and economic change has also been fast-paced. Not only are new
economic powers emerging, but the face of the global geopolitical landscape has changed
fundamentally in the past two decades. As new actors emerge on the international stage,
the traditional dominance of the West is beginning to erode.
Such rapid change has contributed since the end of the Cold War to the rise of
unconventional challenges, including the phenomenon of failing states, growing
intrastate conflicts, transnational terrorism, maritime-security threats, and threats to
space-based assets. Climate change, although not a new phenomenon, belongs to this list
of unconventional challenges. As Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller has rightly put it,
‘In contrast to traditional foreign policy and security threats, climate change is not caused by
“hostile” enemies. It is different from terrorism, which we can fight, and weapons of mass
destruction, which we can destroy. This time it is not about political values. It is about our
production and consumption patterns’.2
The challenge of climate change is really the challenge of sustainable development. In the
continuing scramble to build economic security, energy security, food security, water security
and military-related security—all on a national basis—the world now is beginning to face
the harsh truth that one nation’s security cannot be in isolation of others. In fact, the rapid
pace of economic, political and technological change in the world is itself a consequence
of nations competing fiercely for relative advantage in an international system based
largely on national security. Climate change is a legacy of such assertive promotion of
The climate crisis, of course, has been accentuated by rapid economic development in
Asia, which today boasts the world’s fastest-growing economies, besides the fastest-rising
military expenditures and the most dangerous hot spots. Asia, through its dynamism and
fluidity and as home to more than half of the world’s population, is set to shape the future
of globalisation. It also has a critical role in the fight against climate change, as underscored
by a recent Dutch report that China has now overtaken America as the world’s biggest
greenhouse-gas emitter on a national, rather than a per capita, basis.
It is true that a US resident is currently responsible, on an average, for about six times more
greenhouse-gas emissions than the typical Chinese, and as much as eighteen times more
than the average Indian. But it is also true that if Asians continue to increase their output of
greenhouse gases at the present rate, climate change would be seriously accelerated.
We should not forget, however, that Asia is only bouncing back from a 150-year decline,
and is now seeking to regain economic pre-eminence in the world. According to an Asian
Development Bank study, Asia, after making up three-fifths of the world’s GDP at the
beginning of the industrial age in 1820, saw its stake decline to one-fifth in 1945, before
dramatic economy recovery has helped bring it up to two-fifths today. In keeping with its
emerging centrality in international relations and relatively young demographics, Asia serves
as a reminder that the ongoing power shifts foreshadow a very different kind of world.
Like other unconventional challenges, the challenge thrown up by global warming can only
be tackled effectively by building and maintaining a broad international consensus. Indeed,
the ongoing power shifts in the world have made such consensus building a sine qua non
for the success of any international undertaking. With greater distribution of power, the
traditional America-centric and Euro-centric world is also changing. The old divides (like the
East-West and North-South) are giving way to new divides. Even though world economic
growth is at a thirty-year high, with global income now totalling $51 trillion annually, the
consensus on globalisation is beginning to fracture.
Combating climate change is an international imperative, not merely a choice. The new
global spotlight on climate change has helped move the subject into the international
mainstream. There is now growing recognition that climate security needs to be an
important component of international security, as evidenced by the 2007 special debates on
climate change in both the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly.
There is an ominous link between global warming and security, given the spectre of resource
conflicts, failed states, large-scale migrations and higher frequency and intensity of extreme
weather events, such as cyclones, flooding and droughts. Some developments would
demand intervention by the armed forces. Climate change has been correctly characterised
as a ‘threat multiplier’.
In terms of long-term geopolitical implications, climate stress could induce perennial
competition and conflict that would represent a much bigger challenge than any the world
faces today, including the fight against the al‑Qaeda or the proliferation of dual‑use nuclear
technologies among the so-called ‘rogue’ states. After all, climate stress, and the attendant
cropland degradation and scarcity of fresh water, are likely to intensify competition over
scarce resources and engender civil strife.
Such are its far-reaching strategic implications that climate change could also foster or
intensify conditions that lead to failed states—the breeding grounds for extremism,
fundamentalism and terrorism. Although an unconventional challenge by itself, climate
change is likely to heighten low-intensity military threats that today’s conventional forces
are already finding difficult to defeat—transnational terrorism, guerrilla movements
Furthermore, climate change could increase the severity, duration and the collateral impact
of a conflict, besides triggering mass dislocation. For example, the South Pacific islands, as
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in the second of four reports
in 2007, are likely to be hit by an increased frequency of tropical storms and be battered by
rising sea levels, forcing the likely migration of many residents to Australia and New Zealand.
Besides worsening droughts and increasing fires and flooding in Australia and New Zealand,
global warming could threaten ecologically rich sites like the Great Barrier Reef and the
That is why climate change ought to be on the national and global security agenda.
Securitising the risks of climate change also helps to turn the issue from one limited to
eco-warriors to a subject of major international concern. That in turn may help facilitate the
heavy-lifting needed to give the problem the urgency and financial resources it deserves.
Having succeeded in highlighting climate change as an international challenge, however,
the emphasis now has to shift to building consensus on combating climate change.
Most importantly, the international community needs to move beyond platitudes to
The security-related challenges posed by climate change can be effectively dealt with only
through a cooperative international framework. No international mission today can hope
to achieve tangible results unless it comes with five Cs: coherence, consistency, credibility,
commitment and consensus. Indeed, this is the key lesson one can learn from the way the
global war on terror now stands derailed, even as the scourge of transnational terrorism has
spread deeper and wider in the world.
Climate change is a real and serious problem, and its effects could stress vulnerable nations
and spur civil and political unrest. Yet the creeping politicisation of the subject will only make
it harder to build international consensus and cooperation on a concrete plan of action. Take
the insistence of some to add climate security to the agenda of the United Nations Security
Council. If climate change were to become part of the agenda of the Security Council—a
hotbed of big-power politics—it would actually undercut such consensus building. With
five unelected, yet permanent, members dictating the terms of the debate, we would get
international divisiveness when the need is for enduring consensus on a global response to
Politics has also come in the way of reaching an agreement, even in principle, on defining
what is popularly known as the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ of the developed
and developing states. At the Group of Eight (G‑8) Outreach Summit in mid-2007 in
Germany, for instance, leaders of the G‑8 powers and the new Group of Five (G‑5) comprising
the five emerging economies—China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa—talked
past each other. The G‑8, in its declaration, asked ‘notably the emerging economies to
address the increase in their emissions by reducing the carbon intensity of their economic
development’. And the G‑5 retorted by placing the onus of dealing with climate change on
the developed nations, asking them to make significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions
first. ‘Greenhouse-gas mitigation in developed countries is the key to address climate change
given their responsibilities in causing it’, noted a G‑5 policy paper presented to the leaders of
the G‑8. This to-and-fro cannot hide the imperative for an equitable sharing of responsibility.
While being on the green bandwagon has become politically trendy, the action often
involves little more than lip service to climate security. Sometimes the political action makes
the situation only worse. Take the Bush Administration’s embrace of corn-derived ethanol.
The move does little to fight climate change or reduce US dependence on imported oil.
But it does a lot to create a windfall for the farm lobby by boosting grain prices. It began
as a promise of a free lunch—to encourage farmers to grow more corn so that ethanol
companies could use it to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil without affecting
US consumers. Instead it has shown that there can be no free lunch. The ripples from the
ethanol boom have already meant higher prices for corn, wheat, fertilizer and the food on
our table—and rising US dependence on imported fertilizers.
Generous subsidies are at the core of the Bush Administration’s goal of replacing over the
next decade 15% of domestic gasoline use with biofuels (corn ethanol and biodiesel). This
target is sought to be propped up through a subsidy of 51 cents a gallon for blending ethanol
into gasoline, and a import tariff of 54 cents a gallon to help keep out cheap sugarcane-based
ethanol from Brazil. To achieve that 15% target would require the entire current US corn crop,
which represents 40% of the global corn supply.
Having unleashed the incentives to divert corn from food to fuel, the United States is now
reaping higher food prices. The price of corn has nearly doubled since 2006. At the beginning
of 2006, corn was a little over $2 a bushel. Now in the futures markets, corn for December
2007 delivery is selling at $3.85 a bushel, despite projections of a record 12.5 billion-bushel
corn harvest in the United States this year. With corn so profitable to plant, farmers are
shifting acreage from wheat, soybeans and other grains, putting further upward pressure on
food prices. The losers are the poor. As of June 2007, a bushel of soybeans was up 36% from a
year earlier. The price of wheat is projected to rise 50% by the end of 2007.
With the European Union also jumping on the ethanol bandwagon, a fundamental issue
has been raised—how can ethanol be produced and delivered in keeping with the needs of
sustainable development? The political claim that corn-derived ethanol is environmentally
friendly has to be seen against the fact that, compared to either biodiesel or ethanol from
rice straw and switchgrass, corn has a far lower energy yield relative to the energy used to
produce it. It should also not be forgotten that growing corn demands high use of nitrogen-based
fertilizers—produced from natural gas. The 16% increase since 2006 in US corn
cultivation has resulted in a big surge in US fertilizer demand—as much as an extra 1 million
metric tons in 2007. There are two other factors that should not be overlooked—(i) because
ethanol yields 30% less energy per gallon than gasoline, the fall in mileage is significant; and
(ii) adding ethanol raises the price of blended fuel over unblended gasoline because of the
extra handling and transportation costs.
The craze for ethanol is also encouraging the felling of tropical forests in a number of
countries to make way for corn, sugar and palm-oil plantations to fuel the world’s growing
thirst for ethanol. That is senseless: to fight climate change, the world needs forests more
than ethanol. Forests breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen every day, helping
to keep our planet cool. Besides storing carbon and reducing the effects of greenhouse-gas
emissions, forests filter pollution and yield clean water.
It is important to know that despite the justifiable attention on China’s rapidly growing
industrial pollution, the destruction of the world’s tropical forests contributes more to
global warming every year than the carbon-dioxide emissions from Chinese coal‑fired power
plants, cement and other manufacturing factories, and vehicles. Fortunately, the massive
enthusiasm over biofuels is now finally beginning to give way to realism and even concern
that biofuels pose a threat to global food security and biodiversity.
Another invidious way climate change is being politicised is through embellishment of the
technical evidence on global warming. Take the reports of the IPCC, a joint body of the World
Meteorological Organization and UN Environment Programme. Ever since the IPCC in 1990
began releasing its assessments every five or six years, the panel has become gradually wiser,
with its projected ocean-level increases due to global warming on a continuing downward
slide. As a body, the IPCC remains on a learning curve.
From projecting in the 1990s a 67-centimetre rise in sea levels by the year 2100, the IPCC has
progressively whittled down that projection by nearly half—first to 48.5 centimetres in 2001
and then to 38.5 centimetres in 2007. Should the world be worried by the potential rise of the
oceans by 38.5 centimetres within the next 100 years? You bet. We need to slow down such a
rise. But if a rise of 38.5 centimetres does occur, will it mean catastrophe? Not really.
If the world didn’t even notice a nearly 20-centimetre rise in sea levels in the past century, a
slow 38.5-centimetre ascent of the oceans over the next 100 years cannot mean a calamity
of epic proportions. Yet the scaremongering has picked up steam—‘the Netherlands would
be under water’, ‘millions would have to flee Shanghai’, ‘Bangladesh’s very existence would
Climate change is a serious challenge with grave security implications, but it doesn’t
mean we are doomed. It is important to see things in a balanced way. There can be
genuine differences in assessing the likely impact of global warming. The Stern Report,
for example, seems more alarmed over potential climate-change implications than the
IPCC.3 Such differences among experts are understandable. What is unconscionable is the
scaremongering. Doomsday ayatollahs should not be allowed to dictate the debate.
Yet another facet of the current climate-change geopolitics is that the term, global warming,
is being stretched to embrace environmental degradation unrelated to the effects of the
build-up of greenhouse gases and aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere. What has
climate change to do with reckless land use, overgrazing, contamination of water resources,
overuse of groundwater, inefficient or environmentally unsustainable irrigation systems,
waste mismanagement or the destruction of forests, mangroves and other natural habitats?
Some of these actions, of course, may contribute to climate variation but they do not arise
from global warming.
Climate change cannot be turned into a convenient, blame-all phenomenon. If man-made
environmental degradation is expediently hitched to climate change, it would exculpate
governments for reckless development and allow them to feign helplessness. In such a
situation, like the once-fashionable concept of human security, climate change could become
too diffused in its meaning and thereby deflect international focus from tackling growing
fossil-fuel combustion, the main source of man-made greenhouse gases.
It is important to distinguish between climate change and environmental change. Hurricane
Katrina and perennial flooding in Bangladesh, for instance, are not climate-change
occurrences but result from environmental degradation. Frequent flooding in Bangladesh
is tied to upstream and downstream deforestation and other activities resulting from
increased population intensity. Climate change, certainly, could exacerbate such flooding.
Given its serious long-term strategic implications, climate change calls for concerted
international action. But if counteraction were to be turned into a burden-sharing drill
among states, it would fail because distributing ‘burden’ is a doomed exercise. Neither
citizens in rich states are going to lower their living standards by cutting energy use, nor will
poor nations sacrifice economic growth, especially because their per-capita CO2 emissions
are still just one-fifth the level of the developed world.
What is needed is a new political dynamic that is not about burden-sharing but about
opportunity centred on radically different energy and development policies. This means not
only a focus on renewable energy and greater efficiency, but also a more-urgent programme
of research and development on alternative fuels and carbon-sequestration technologies.
CO2 is not dangerous to human beings by itself. But too much CO2 in the atmosphere is
dangerous for climate stability because it changes the heat balance between Earth and the
Sun. Yet CO2 emissions account for 80% of the planet-warming greenhouse gases. The other
20% share is made up of potent gases like methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride
(SF6). The man-made SF-6 is used to create light, foam-based soles to cushion joggers’ feet.
The European Union, with effect from June-end 2007, has rightly prohibited the sale of
such footwear. Methane, on the other hand, is released in coalmining, gas extraction, and
from landfill, cattle and various other sources. Methane capture, however, holds attractive
commercial value: it is the main ingredient of natural gas.
Given that the world has either developed or attempted to build common international
norms on trade, labour practices, human rights, nuclear non‑proliferation, etc., fashioning
common global standards on CO2 emissions is necessary. To help control excess carbon
intensity in the manufacture of goods, such standards could be made to apply to trade
practices, too. In the same way that we seek to ensure that imports are not the products of
child labour or other unfair labour practices, objective and quantifiable standards could be
developed to regulate trade in goods contaminated by carbon intensity.
That would help to put on notice countries that do not seem to care about the carbon
intensity of their manufacturing. Cheap imports, for example, from China—the world’s
back factory—would become subject to such standards, putting pressure on both large
importers like Wal‑Mart and Beijing itself to move towards more environmentally friendly
manufacturing. In the wake of the multiple scandals in 2007 over tainted Chinese food
and drug exports, such an exercise would be part and parcel of efforts to raise industry
standards and promote public-health and environmental safety. It could also help to instil
accountability: the importer of goods ought to be no less culpable in the emission of CO2
than the exporter.
If CO2 and non‑CO2 levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not controlled, the
higher average temperatures in the world could adversely upset the climate balance on
which human civilisation and other species depend. Development and climate protection
have to be in alignment with each other, because it cannot be an ‘either or’ proposition.
Against this background, it is becoming apparent to most that the costs of inaction
outweigh the costs of action. The issue is not about horse-trade or burden. It is about
sharing opportunity to create a better future. The opportunity is also about promoting
green-technology developments. Ultimately, technology may offer salvation, given the
power and role of technological forces today. Even if geo-engineering options to fix climate
change are seen to belong to the realm of science fiction today, they still need to be pursued.
As the history of the past century shows, scientific discoveries that seemed improbable at
a given moment became a reality within years. Albert Einstein in 1932, for example, judged
the potential of nuclear energy as a mirage. But 13 years later, the cities of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki lay in nuclear ruins.
Likely security-related effects
The actual national security-related effects of climate change are likely to vary from region
to region. For example, Australia’s size, resources, small population and geographical location
position it better to cope with the effects of climate change. The same is the case with
Canada. Japan, an insulated island chain with rugged terrain, could rely on its impressive
social cohesion to induce resource conservation and other societal adaptation to climate
change. But some parts of the world are likely to be severely hit by climate change and suffer
debilitating security effects.
By and large, warming is expected to be the least in the islands and coastal areas, and the
greatest in the inland continental areas. Several studies have shown that global warming
is likely to actually strengthen monsoon circulation and bring increased rainfall in the
monsoonal seasons.4 Changes in non‑monsoon, or dry-season, rainfall have been more
difficult to assess. The likely increased rainfall suggests that climate change is not going
to be an unmitigated disaster. Rather, adaptation to climate change would demand the
development of new techniques.
Climate change is also likely to bring about important shifts in temperature patterns, a rise
in sea levels, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of anomalous weather events,
such as cyclones, flooding and droughts. These trends, cumulatively, could play havoc with
agriculture and also impact on conservation strategies. The weaker the economic and social
base and higher the reliance on natural resources, the more a community is likely to be
adversely affected by climate change.
While it is scientifically not possible to predict future events with any degree of certainty,
it is possible to draw some reasonable but broad conclusions, with the aim of controlling
anthropogenic factors contributing to climate change. The likely security-related effects of
climate change can be put in three separate categories:
1. Climate change is likely to intensify inter-state and intra-state competition over natural
resources, especially water, in several parts of the world. That in turn could trigger
resource conflicts within and between states, and open new or exacerbate existing
2. Increased frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts and flooding,
as well as the rise of ocean levels, are likely to spur greater inter-state and intra-state
migration—especially of the poor and the vulnerable—from delta and coastal regions to
the hinterland. Such an influx of outsiders would socially swamp inland areas, upsetting
the existing fragile ethnic balance and provoking a backlash that strains internal and
regional security. Through such large-scale migration, the political stability and internal
cohesion of some nations could be undermined. In some cases, this could even foster or
strengthen conditions that could make the state dysfunctional.
3. The main casualty of climate change, clearly, is expected to be human security. Social
and economic disparities would intensify within a number of states, as climatic change
delivers a major blow to vulnerable sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, and to
low-lying coastal and delta areas. In an increasingly climate change-driven paradigm, the
tasks of good governance and sustainable development would become more onerous
The economically disruptive effects of ocean-level rise and frequently occurring extreme
weather events are likely to lead to create major national challenges, as those displaced are
forced to relocate inland. Jobs in the countryside, however, will not be easy to come by for
migrants who are compelled to move into the hinterland due to loss of their agricultural land
and production. That might only encourage mass influx into the already-crowded cities in the
The impact of climate variability on society will mean change in the social‑economic-political
environments on which the security of individuals, communities and states rest. Such
variability would affect crop yields and the availability of water, energy and food, including
seafood. The case for angst over the security implications of climate change has been
underlined by an unclassified 2003 Pentagon study, which warned of large population
movements and contended that diplomatic action would be needed to control likely conflict
over resources in the most impacted areas, especially in the Caribbean and Asia. According
to the report,5 climate change would affect Australia’s position as a major food exporter,
while the food, energy and water situation in densely populated China would come under
severe strain by a decreased reliability of the monsoon rains and by colder winters and hotter
summers. It paints one possible scenario in these words: ‘Widespread famine causes chaos
and internal struggles as a cold and hungry China peers jealously across the Russian and
western borders at energy resources’.
The report hypothesised massive Bangladeshi refugee exodus to India and elsewhere, as
recurrent hurricanes and higher ocean level make ‘much of Bangladesh nearly uninhabitable’.
Other scenarios discussed in the report include the possibility of the United Stated building
a fortress around itself to shield its resources, besides getting locked in political tensions
with Mexico through actions such as a cut-off of water flow from the Colorado River into
lower‑riparian Mexico in breach of a 1944 treaty.
In general, according to the report, ‘Learning how to manage those populations, border
tensions that arise and the resulting refugees will be critical. New forms of security
agreements dealing specifically with energy, food and water will also be needed. In short,
while the US itself will be relatively better off and with more adaptive capacity, it will find
itself in a world where Europe will be struggling internally, [with] large number [of] refugees
washing up on its shores, and Asia in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and
conflict will be endemic features of life’.
It should not be forgotten that in some situations, the effects of climate change are likely to
foster or intensify conditions that lead to failed or failing states. That in turn would adversely
impact regional and international security. In such cases, the more resource-secure countries
would have to either aid such states or face the security-related consequences from the
growing lawlessness and extremism there.
Notwithstanding the game of chicken currently being played between the North and the
South, it is the developing world that is likely to bear the brunt of climate change because it
has a larger concentration of hot and low-lying regions and lesser resources to technologically
adapt to climate change. The poorer a country, the less it would be able to defend its people
against the climate-change effects, which would potentially include more‑severe storms,
the flooding of tropical islands and coastlines, higher incidence of drought inland, resources
becoming scarcer, and a threat to the survival of at least one‑fourth of the world’s species.
While the overriding interest of developing countries is still economic growth and poverty
eradication, climate change can actually accentuate poverty. In fact, when rural economies
get weakened, livelihoods are disrupted and unemployment soars, frustrations and anger
would be unleashed, fostering greater conflict within and between societies.
Potential water wars
Two major effects of climate change are beyond dispute: (i) declining crop yields putting
a strain on food availability and prices: and (ii) decreased availability and quality of fresh
water owing to accelerated glacial thaw, flooding and droughts. The second factor can only
compound the first. In fact, water, food and energy constraints can be managed in inter‑state
or intra-state context through political or economic means only up to a point, beyond which
conflict becomes likely.
The likely impact on the availability of water resources is a critical component of the
security‑related challenges posed by climate change. Hundreds of millions of people in the
world are already without access to safe drinking water. This situation would aggravate
markedly if current projections of climate change come true. Accelerated snow melt from
mountains and faster glacier thaw could deplete river-water resources and potentially drive
large numbers of subsistence farmers into cities.
No region better illustrates the danger of water wars than Asia, which has less fresh water—
3,920 cubic metres per person—than any other continent outside of Antarctica, according to
a 2006 United Nations report.6 This report states that when the estimated reserves of lakes,
rivers and groundwater are added up, Asia has marginally less water per person than Europe
or Africa, one-quarter that of North America, nearly one-tenth that of South America and
twenty times less than Australia and Pacific islands. Yet Asia is home to 60% of the world’s
population. The sharpening Asian competition over energy resources, driven in part by high
GDP growth rates and in part by mercantilist attempts to lock up supplies, has obscured
another danger: water shortages in much of Asia are becoming a threat to rapid economic
modernisation, prompting the building of upstream projects on international rivers. If water
geopolitics were to spur interstate tensions through reduced water flows to neighbouring
states, the Asian renaissance could stall.
As Asia’s population booms and economic development gathers speed, water is becoming
a prized commodity and a potential source of conflict. Climate change threatens supplies
of this limited natural resource, with some Asian nations either jockeying to control
water sources or demanding a say in the building of hydro projects on inter-state rivers.
Competition over water is likely to increase political tensions and the potential for conflict.
Water, therefore, has emerged as a key issue that would determine if Asia is headed
toward mutually beneficial cooperation or deleterious interstate competition. No country
would influence that direction more than China, which controls the aqua-rich Tibetan
plateau—the source of most major rivers of Asia.
Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude have endowed it with the world’s greatest river
systems. Its river waters are a lifeline to the world’s two most-populous states—China and
India—as well as to Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand
and Vietnam. These countries make up 47% of the global population.
Yet Asia is a water-deficient continent. The looming struggle over water resources in Asia has
been underscored by the spread of irrigated farming, water-intensive industries (from steel
to paper making) and a growing middle class seeking high water-consuming comforts like
dishwashers and washing machines. Household water consumption in Asia is rising rapidly,
according to the UN report, but such is the water paucity that not many Asians can aspire
for the lifestyle of Americans, who daily use 400 litres per person, or more than 2.5 times the
average in Asia.
The spectre of water wars in Asia is also being highlighted both by climate change and by
man-made environmental degradation in the form of shrinking forests and swamps that
foster a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts through the depletion of nature’s water
storage and absorption cover. The Himalayan snow melt that feeds Asia’s great rivers could
be damagingly accelerated by global warming.
While intra-state water-sharing disputes have become rife in several Asian countries—from
India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China—it is the potential inter-state conflict over
river-water resources that should be of greater concern. This concern arises from Chinese
attempts to dam or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau,
where major rivers originate, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the
Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej. Among Asia’s mighty rivers, only the
Ganges starts from the Indian side of the Himalayas.
The lopsided availability of water within some nations (abundant in some areas but
deficient in others) has given rise to grand ideas—from linking rivers in India to diverting
the fast‑flowing Brahmaputra northward to feed the arid areas in the Chinese heartland.
Inter‑state conflict, however, will surface only when an idea is translated into action to
benefit oneself at the expense of a neighbouring nation.
As water woes have aggravated in its north owing to environmentally unsustainable
intensive farming, China has increasingly turned its attention to the bounteous water
reserves that the Tibetan plateau holds. It has dammed rivers, not just to produce
hydropower but also to channel the waters for irrigation and other purposes, and is
presently toying with massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects.
Chinese hydro projects on the Tibetan plateau are increasingly a source of concern to
neighbouring states. For example, after building two dams upstream on the Mekong, China
is building at least three more on that river, inflaming passions downstream in Vietnam,
Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Several Chinese projects in west-central Tibet have a bearing
on river-water flows into India, but Beijing is loath to share information. After flash floods in
India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state, however, China agreed in 2005 to supply New Delhi
data on any abnormal rise or fall in the upstream level of the Sutlej River, on which it has
built a barrage. Discussions are still on to persuade it to share flood-control data during the
monsoonal season on two Brahmaputra tributaries, Lohit and Parlung Zangbo, as it already
does since 2002 on the Brahmaputra River, which it has dammed at several places upstream.
The ten major watersheds formed by the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands spread out
river waters far and wide in Asia. Control over the 2.5 million-square-kilometre Tibetan
plateau gives China tremendous leverage, besides access to vast natural resources. Having
extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialisation, China
now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its
bid to meet its thirst for water and energy.
Tibet, in the shape and size it existed independently up to 1950, comprises approximately
one-fourth of China’s land mass today, having given Han society, for the first time in history,
a contiguous frontier with India, Burma, Bhutan and Nepal. Tibet traditionally encompassed
the regions of Ü-Tsang (the central plateau), Kham and Amdo. After annexing Tibet, China
separated Amdo (the present Dalai Lama’s birthplace) as the new Qinghai province, made
Ü-Tsang and western Kham the Tibet Autonomous Region, and merged remainder parts of
Tibet in its provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu.
The traditional Tibet is not just a distinct cultural entity but also the natural plateau, the
future of whose water reserves is tied to ecological conservation. As China’s hunger for
primary commodities has grown, so too has its exploitation of Tibet’s resources. And as
water woes have intensified in several major Chinese cities, a group of ex-officials in China
have championed the northward rerouting of the waters of the Brahmaputra River in a book
self-enlighteningly titled, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China.
Large hydro projects and reckless exploitation of mineral resources already threaten Tibet’s
fragile ecosystems, with ore tailings beginning to contaminate water sources. Unmindful of
the environmental impact of such activities in pristine areas, China has now embarked on
constructing a 108-kilometer paved road to Mount Everest, located along the Tibet-Nepal
frontier. This highway is part of China’s plan to reinforce its claims on Tibet by taking the
Olympic torch to the peak of the world’s tallest mountain before the 2008 Beijing Games.
As in the past, no country is going to be more affected by Chinese plans and projects in
Tibet than India. The new $6.2-billion Gormu-Lhasa railway, for example, has significantly
augmented China’s rapid military-deployment capability against India just when Beijing
is becoming increasingly assertive in its claims on Indian territories. This hardline stance,
in the midst of intense negotiations to resolve the 4,057-kilometer Indo-Tibetan border,
is no less incongruous than Beijing’s disinclination to set up what it had agreed to during
its president’s state visit to New Delhi last November—a joint expert-level mechanism on
interstate river waters.
Contrast China’s reluctance to establish a mechanism intended for mere ‘interaction and
cooperation’ on hydrological data with New Delhi’s consideration towards downstream
Pakistan, reflected both in the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (which generously reserves 56% of
the catchment flow for Pakistan) and the more-recent acceptance of World Bank
arbitration over the Baglihar Dam project in Indian Kashmir. No Indian project has sought to
reroute or diminish trans-border water flows, yet Pakistan insists on a say in the structural
design of projects upstream in India. New Delhi gladly permits Pakistani officials to inspect
such projects. By contrast, Beijing drags its feet on setting up an innocuous interaction
mechanism. Would China, under any arrangement, allow Indian officials to inspect its
projects in Tibet or accept, if any dispute arose, third-party adjudication?
If anything, China seems intent on aggressively pursuing projects and employing water as
a weapon. The idea of a Great South-North Water Transfer Project diverting river waters
cascading from the Tibetan highlands has the backing of President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist
who made his name through a brutal martial‑law crackdown in Tibet in 1989. In crushing
protestors at Tiananmen Square two months later, Deng Xiaoping actually took a page out of
Hu’s Tibet playbook.
The Chinese ambition to channel the Brahmaputra waters to the parched Yellow River has
been whetted by what Beijing touts as its engineering feat in building the giant, $25-billion
Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze—a project that has displaced a staggering 1.4 million
citizens. The Three Gorges Dam is just an initial step in a much-wider water strategy centred
on the Great South-North Water Transfer Project. While China’s water resources minister told
a Hong Kong University meeting in October 2006 that, in his personal opinion, the idea to
divert waters from the Tibetan highlands northwards seems not viable, the director of the
Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee said publicly that the mega-plan enjoys official
sanction and may begin by 2010.
The Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans) originates near Mount Kailash and,
before entering India, flows eastward in Tibet for 2,200 kilometres at an average height
of 4,000 meters, making it the world’s highest major river. When two other tributaries
merge with it, the Brahmaputra becomes as wide as 10 kilometres in India before flowing
The first phase of China’s South-North Project calls for building 300 kilometres of tunnels
and channels to draw waters from the Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu rivers, on the eastern
rim of the Tibetan plateau. Only in the second phase would the Brahmaputra waters be
directed northwards. In fact, Beijing has identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms
the world’s longest and deepest canyon just before entering India as holding the largest
untapped reserves for meeting its water and energy needs. As publicly sketched by the chief
planner of the Academy of Engineering Physics, Professor Chen Chuanyu, the Chinese plan
would reportedly involve using nuclear explosives to blast a 15-kilometre-long tunnel through
the Himalayas to divert the river flow and build a dam that could generate twice the power
of the Three Gorges Dam.
While some doubts do persist in Beijing over the economic feasibility of channelling Tibetan
waters northwards, the mammoth diversion of the Brahmaputra could begin as water
shortages become more acute in the Chinese mainland and China’s current $1.2 trillion
foreign-exchange hoard brims over. The mega-rerouting would constitute the declaration of
a water war on lower-riparian India and Bangladesh.
It is patently obvious that if water were to become an underlying factor in inter-state
tensions in Asia, and increasingly a scarce and precious commodity domestically, water wars
would inevitably follow. The water-related challenges also underscore the necessity for Asia
to adapt alternatives based on newer technologies and methods. Given that several Asian
states will inescapably have to reduce their reliance on the natural bounty of the Himalayas
and Tibetan highlands as temperatures rise and the glacier and snow melt accelerates,
efficient rain-water harvesting will have to be embraced. The silver lining for the continent is
that the rise in temperatures under enhanced greenhouse conditions is likely to bring more
rainfall through the South-West and South-East Monsoon in the summer and the North-East
Monsoon in the winter. The abundant monsoonal supply thus would need to be tapped
through cost-effective technologies to provide a practical answer to the challenges arising
from dwindling river waters.
Climate change is not just a matter of science but also a matter of geopolitics. Without
improved geopolitics, there can be no real fight against climate change. The growing
talk on climate change is not being matched by action, not even modest action. Even as
some countries have succeeded in shining the international spotlight on climate change,
international diplomacy has yet to develop necessary traction to deal with the challenges of
At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro,
189 countries, including the United States, China, India and all the European nations, signed
the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreeing to stabilise greenhouse gases
at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate
system. Yet, fifteen years later, no country has done that. US per capita greenhouse-gas
emissions, already the highest of any major nation, continue to soar. A leaked Bush
Administration report in March 2007 indicated that US emissions were likely to rise almost
as fast over the next decade as they did during the previous decade. Now, renewed global
efforts are on to reach yet-another agreement to do what the international community had
promised to carry out fifteen years ago.
The Group of Eight (G‑8) agreed in June 2007 to try and clinch a new global UN-sponsored
climate change deal (to succeed or extend the Kyoto Protocol from 2013), but failed to agree
on a timetable for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, which went into
affect in February 2005, expires in 2012. But while the G‑8 leaders agreed to seek ‘substantial’
cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions and to give ‘serious consideration’ to the goal of halving
such emissions by 2050, this is still at the level of just talk.
The important point to remember is that about twenty countries produce 80% of global
CO2 emissions. So you don’t need all the 191 UN members on board to combat climate
change. One way to build international consensus on this issue is to engage states whose
CO2 emissions share is 1% or more.
It is also important to note that CO2 emissions are not exactly a function of the level of
development. The United States, for example, belches twice as much CO2 per capita as Japan,
although the two countries have fairly similar per-capita incomes. The US Environmental
Protection Agency admits that about 6.6 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted
per person in America, easily placing that country No. 1 in the world in per-capita emissions.
Take the case within the United States: California has held its per capita energy consumption
essentially constant since 1974, while per capita energy use for the United States overall
during the same period has jumped 50%. Through a mix of mandates, regulations and high
prices, California has managed to cut CO2 emissions and yet maintain economic growth. Now
it is seeking to reduce automobile pollution, promote solar energy and cap its CO2 emissions.
Yet another point to note is that a global climate policy alone will not solve the current
climate crisis. Climate change indeed may be the wrong end of the problem to look at. Given
that nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse-gas emissions are due to the way we produce and
use energy, we need to focus more on alternate energy policies.
Unless we address energy issues, we won’t be able to address climate change. Energy use,
however, sustains economic growth, which in turn buttresses political and social stability.
Today four-fifths of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas. Until
we can either replace fossil fuels with cost-effective alternatives or find practical ways to
capture CO2 emissions, the world would remain wedded to the fossil-fuel age. According
to projections by the Paris-based International Energy Agency, total energy demand in the
world is to rise 68% by 2030, with most of the increases occurring in developing countries.
Reliance on fossil fuels would marginally rise from 80% in 2002 to 82% in 2030. Given this
scenario, all states need to endeavour to reduce their energy intensity—the ratio of energy
consumption to economic output.
The harsh reality is that the global competition over energy resources has become
intertwined with geopolitics. This competition now is overtly influencing strategic thinking
and military planning in a number of key states. China, for example, cites energy interests
to rationalise its ‘string-of-pearls’ strategy, which aims to hold sway over vital sea lanes
between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through a chain of bases, naval facilities and military
ties. But if energy security has become a foreign-policy challenge, whether in Europe or in
Asia or elsewhere, why shouldn’t climate security similarly be made a foreign-policy issue?
If there is any good news on the climate-change front, it is the ongoing attitudinal shift in
the world—from the United States to Australia, and from China to Brazil. A prerequisite to
any policy shift is an attitudinal shift. In the coming years, the world hopefully will see policy
shifting both at the national and international levels to help build climate security.
It should not be forgotten that the human mind is innovative. History is a testament to
human civilisation successfully overcoming dire situations and warnings. It has averted, for
example, the ‘Malthusian catastrophe’, put forward by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 essay. The
thesis contended that population growth would outstrip the Earth’s agricultural production,
leading to famine and a return to subsistence-level conditions. Actually, with a lesser and
lesser percentage of human society engaged in agriculture, the world is producing more
and more food. If people are still going hungry, it is because of poverty. Another catastrophe
was predicted by a 1972 Club of Rome study, titled, Limits to Growth, which examined the
consequences on economic growth of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource
supplies. Indeed, since the study was released, global economic growth, far from showing
any limits, has continued to boom.
As a real and serious problem, climate change should be seen as challenging human ability
to innovate and live in harmony with nature. In the past, the international community
has indeed reached agreements on environmental challenges, such as the control of
trans-boundary movement and disposal of hazardous wastes (the Basel Convention)7
and the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons (the Montreal Protocol). The CFCs and other
chlorine- and bromine-containing compounds have been implicated in the accelerated
depletion of ozone in the Earth’s stratosphere. The Montreal Protocol on Substances That
Deplete the Ozone Layer, along with national‑policy decisions, compelled industry and the
scientific community to collaborate and develop safe alternatives to CFCs. That should inspire
hope for international action on controlling greenhouse gases as part of a public-private
partnership to create a Planet Inc. To propel such action and encourage industry to invest in
alternate technologies, a mix of economic incentives and regulations are vital.
1 Veerabhadran Ramanathan et al, ‘Warming Trends in Asia Amplified by Brown Cloud
Solar Absorption’, Nature, Volume 448, Number 7153 (2007).
2 Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller of Denmark, Speech at Chatham House, London, June 26,
2007. Official text released by the Danish foreign ministry.
3 The British government-commissioned report by Nicholas Stern, released in November
2006, contended that a temperature increase in the range of 5 degrees Celsius would
over time cause a sea-level rise enough to threaten the world’s top cities like London,
Shanghai, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. The Stern report also pointed to the need for
rapidly developing countries like China and India to be part of a global effort to tackle the
problem of climate change, even though the main responsibility (as the report admitted)
lies with rich nations that must act now to start reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
4 P. Whetton, A.B. Pittock and R. Suppiah, ‘Implications of Climate Change for Water
Resources in South and Southeast Asia’, in Climate Change in Asia: Thematic Overview
(Manila: Asian Development Bank, 1994); Robert T. Watson, Marufu C. Zinyowera Richard
H. Moss, David J. Dokken (Eds.), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special
Report on The Regional Impacts of Climate Change An Assessment of Vulnerability (1997);
R. Suppiah, ‘The Asian Monsoons: Simulations From Four GCMs and Likely Changes Under
Enhanced Greenhouse Conditions’, A.J. Jakeman and B. Pittock (eds.) Climate Impact
Assessment Methods for Asia and the Pacific, Proceedings of a regional symposium,
organised by ANUTECH Pty. Ltd. on behalf of the Australian International Development
Assistance Bureau 10–12 March 1993, Canberra, Australia (1994); Climate Impact
Group, Climate Change Scenarios for South and Southeast Asia (Aspendale, Australia:
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, 1992).
5 Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its
Implications for National Security Scenario (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense,
6 United Nations, The State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific (New York:
United Nations, October 2006).
7 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and
their Disposal. Details at: http://www.basel.int/
© The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited 2007