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Climate Change May Lead to New Security Threats

Professor Kenneth Yalowitz Speaks About How Rising Sea Levels May Put Strains on International Relations


Kenneth S. Yalowitz — former ambassador to Belarus and Georgia and current adjunct professor of government at Dartmouth College — spoke last Tuesday at the Channel City Club on security challenges posed by the effects global climate change has on Arctic and Pacific regions.

“Climate change is bringing new and unprecedented security risks worldwide, and yet is another challenge to our international system and its member states which are already burdened with wars, terrorism, economic recession, poverty, and global health concerns,” Yalowitz said. “While water is always at the center of the problem, climate change has different manifestations in different portions of the world.”

Kenneth S. Yalowitz
Click to enlarge photo

Kenneth S. Yalowitz

In the Arctic region — where sea ice is receding rapidly — Yalowitz said new economic opportunities are presenting themselves in the forms of marine shipping and the availability of energy sources such as oil and natural gas. More than 10 percent of the world’s oil supply and 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves are in the Arctic. The melting ice, he said, has great potential for profit for the five Arctic nations — the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark — but also could result in disputes over claims.

Yalowitz said that to maintain order in the Arctic as the sea’s ice melts further and reveals more economic prospects, the United States must become party to the Law of the Sea Convention, which designates the specific rules and restrictions over oceanic territory and economic zones. All other Arctic states are already party to the convention.

Although the greater availability of resources could cause some problems, Yalowitz does not believe that the situation is dire. “Ultimately, the riches of the north will reignite competition for Arctic oil and gas development,” he said. “That situation, in my judgment, can be managed.”

Global climate change, he went on, may become the source of economic rivalries in the Arctic, but in the Pacific it could have disastrous effects. If sea levels rise due to increasing temperatures, many highly populated Pacific coastal areas could be in danger of flooding and eroding, according to Yalowitz. The Indonesian capital of Jakarta with a population of 10 million, and two-thirds of the country of Bangladesh with a population of 140 million, are among the areas that could be devastated by even a slight rise in sea level.

He said that some low-lying islands in the Pacific are at risk of disappearing altogether, which would cause mass migrations to higher grounds, putting greater economic stress on those areas. Some developed nations like Australia and New Zealand have already agreed to accept environmental refugees.

Drought is a major concern of global climate change as well. Yalowitz said the Indus River in Pakistan and India depends on Himalayan glaciers for its source, but the glaciers — like those in the Arctic — are disappearing. Although the two countries have successfully abided by the Indus Water Treaty for decades, cooperation could come to an end if water becomes scarce, Yalowitz explained. The two countries already have a contentious relationship, and both have nuclear arsenals.

The solution, according to Yalowitz, will be difficult to find. However, he said that global environmental policy is key to solving the problem. “There is no silver bullet,” he said. “Much is going to depend on informed citizenry, demanding action by their governments and legislatures, and leaders demonstrating political will in the face of opposition. Time, however, is getting short.”

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