In August 2007, a Russian adventurer descended 4,300 meters under the thinning ice of the North Pole to plant a titanium flag, claiming some 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic for mother Russia. Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister of Canada stated his intention to boost his nation’s military presence in the Arctic, with the stakes raised by the recent discovery that the icy Northwest Passage has become navigable for the first time in recorded history. Across the globe, the spreading desertification in the Darfur region has been compounding the tensions between nomadic herders and agrarian farmers, providing the environmental backdrop for genocide. In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the risk of coastal flooding is growing and could leave some 30 million people searching for higher ground in a nation already plagued by political violence and a growing trend toward Islamist extremism. Neighboring India is already building a wall along i ts border with Bangladesh. More hopefully, the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a clear recognition that global warming poses not only environmental hazards but profound risks to planetary peace and stability as well.
Although the consequences of global climate change may seem to be the stuff of Hollywood—some imagined, dystopian future—the melting ice of the Arctic, the spreading deserts of Africa, and the swamping of low lying lands are all too real. We already live in an “age of consequences,”1 one that will increasingly be defined by the intersection of climate change and the security of nations.
For the past year a diverse group of experts, under the direction and leadership of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), met regularly to start a new conversation to consider the potential future foreign policy and national security implications of climate change. The group consisted of nationally recognized leaders in the fields of climate science, foreign policy, political science, oceanography, history, and national security, including Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, Pew Center Senior Scientist Jay Gulledge, National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone, American Meteorological Society Fellow Bob Correll, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Senior Scientist Terrence Joyce and former Vice President Richard Pittenger, Climate Institute Chief Scientist Mike MacCracken, Georgetown University Professor John McNeill, former CIA Director James Woolsey, former Chief of Staff to the President John Podesta, and former National Security Advisor to the Vice President Leon Fuerth. Our eclectic group occasionally struggled to “speak the same language,” but a shared sense of purpose helped us develop a common vocabulary and mutual respect.
The mandate of the exercise was, on its face, very straightforward: employ the best available evidence and climate models, and imagine three future worlds that fall within the range of scientific plausibility. As climate scientist Jay Gulledge explains in Chapter II, projections about the effects of climate change have tended to focus on the most probable outcome based on mathematical modeling of what we know about the global climate. With climate science, however, the level of uncertainty has always been very high. Indeed, the scientific community has been shocked at how fast some effects of global warming are unfolding,2 which suggests that many of the estimates considered most probable have been too conservative. When building climate scenarios in order to anticipate the future, therefore, there is a very strong case for looking at the full range of what is plausible.