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Global Warming Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg
The net result of these changes will be the creation of two geopolitical belts of tension due to global warming, which will dramatically shape the patterns of conflict in the 21st century.
First, politics will heat up along what we might call the equatorial tension belt, a broad swath of instability around the planet's center. This belt will creep southward, deeper into Africa, and extend far into central Asia.
Second, a new tension belt will develop around the polar circles. In the short term, the main problems will arise in the Northern Hemisphere, but later in the 21st century, the area around the South Pole may also see increasing security strains as countries rush to claim and develop heretofore frozen areas. If the equatorial tension belt includes mostly poor, developing countries fighting over survival, the new polar tension belt will draw in wealthy, developed countries fighting over opportunity.
This is, admittedly, a glum view of the future. But we can still avoid the new hot wars -- or at least cool them down a bit. For starters, we should redouble our efforts to slow down global warming and undo the damage humanity has already done to the environment. Every little bit helps, so by all means, hassle your senator and recycle those bottles.
Beyond that, we need to get our heads around the idea that global warming is one of the most serious long-term threats to our national and personal security. For the next two decades or so, the climate will continue to change: Historic levels of built-up greenhouse gases will continue to warm the world -- and spin it toward new patterns of conflict. So we need to do more than simply reverse climate change. We need to understand and react to it -- ordinary people and governments alike -- in ways that avoid conflict. Over the next few years, we may find that climate-change accords and peace treaties start to overlap more and more. And we may find that global warming is heating new conflicts up to the boiling point.
James R. Lee runs American University's Inventory of Conflict and Environment project. He is at work on a book on climate change and conflict.