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Mark Shwartz, News Service (650) 723-9296; e-mail:

Donald Kennedy explores the role of environmental change on global security

Hijackings, bioterrorist attacks and suicide bombings aren't the only human-induced threats to global security. Climate change, dwindling resources and the unintentional spread of microbial pests also have the potential to cause political destabilization, according to former university president Donald Kennedy, now editor-in-chief of the journal Science.

Kennedy, the Bing Professor of Environmental Science, Emeritus, made his comments during a May 28 seminar titled "Environmental Change and Conflict Liability" sponsored by Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). The informal event was attended by about a dozen CISAC members who specialize in international security issues-- including co-director Christopher Chyba, member-in-residence Herbert Abrams and senior research scholar Lynn Eden.

"My task is to persuade you -- in case some of you need persuading that an environmental scientist concerned with the processes that drive environmental change can say something useful about security," Kennedy told the group.

He described the problems he and his colleagues faced when they attempted an earlier collaborative study on environmental policy and regional conflict.

"The idea was that, if you could somehow match social, religious and historical tensions on one set of maps, and put environmental change and environmental change liabilities on another map and overlay them, you could identify hotspots where it might be predicted that regional conflicts would take place," Kennedy said.

Unfortunately, that approach proved far too simplistic. Nevertheless, he noted, there are three main topics that analysts may find useful when attempting to predict where environmentally driven social conflicts are likely to occur: climate change, biogeographical redistribution and resource availability.


Climate change

In the past 100 years, the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased, causing average global temperatures to rise, Kennedy said. If climate models are correct, then the number of extreme weather events in this century will increase -- a situation that could have an especially serious impact on low-lying countries as sea levels rise.

Kennedy pointed to his previous study in which he and his co-workers analyzed the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta in Bangladesh -- an area of low elevation and extremely dense population. Rising sea levels combined with powerful storm surges could displace tens of millions of people, the study concluded.

"Already there's been some emigration from that delta into neighboring regions of India -- and considerable agitation around that, where native populations are resenting the immigrants," Kennedy said. "My own view is that the likeliest prospect for new conflict generation [throughout the globe] is going to come from forced migration."

An even greater threat, according to Kennedy, is what climate change may do to agriculture around the world. The biggest impact is likely to be on food security in the tropics, especially in Africa, where food supplies are marginal at best, he explained.

Kennedy cited geological analyses of ice cores from Greenland and various sediment records dating back thousands of years. The data revealed that, in the recent past, the Earth experienced periods of extreme climate change during which average temperatures rose and fell as much as 10 degrees Celsius in a matter of decades. The last cold snap ended about 12,000 years ago, he said, throwing us into an unusually stable era of balmy and benign weather that gave rise to agriculture and has remained in place ever since.

Modern Europe is warmer than it should be, given its latitude -- probably because of the great gyre that circulates warm water from the Gulf of Mexico into the North Atlantic. If that were stopped, then plainly there would be a dramatic climate shift in temperate regions, Kennedy said -- a situation that could occur if the salinity of the Atlantic was lowered by a big injection of fresh water in the north as the result of rapidly melting glaciers.

"All that, I think, is very much at the stage of theory," he noted.

Kennedy also pointed to studies predicting that climate change will cause malaria and other pathogens to spread across the globe. Cases of malaria have been recently documented at higher elevations in Central Africa, where warmer temperatures and increased precipitation have led to a more vertical distribution of mosquitoes.

"I don't think there are any really persuasive projections for how much additional malaria will be in the world as a consequence of climate change," he cautioned.


Biogeographical redistribution

Pathogens and other organisms move freely around the globe even without human intervention, Kennedy said. For example, the Black Death originated in marmots in Asia and was transported in a series of steps along the Silk Road into Europe.

Today, globalization plays an increasingly important role in the transcontinental movement of pathogens, Kennedy maintained, although we seem to be doing little about it. He cited the uncontrolled discharge of ballast water from ships at ports around the world -- a practice that has been blamed for spreading tropical diseases and introducing countless exotic marine organisms that compete with native species.

The prospect of new outbreaks of infectious disease -- along with the recent anthrax attacks -- may finally prompt a much-needed review of America's early warning health surveillance system, Kennedy predicted.

"We have a crappy public health infrastructure in this country -- poor coordination between local jurisdictions, states and federal," noted Kennedy, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "One of the aspects of anti-terrorist strategies in the United States, I think it's important to emphasize, is that there are a number of things one can do with respect to bioterrorism that ought to be done anyway for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism."


Resource availability

There is no question that there are more people in the world using resources less frugally, Kennedy asserted. That's important in the security context, he added, because 70 percent of the habitable land surface on Earth lies within a river basin that's internationally shared.

According to Kennedy, upstream residents can do several things to a river that negatively affect downstream populations: "You can dam it up so they don't get any. You can dam it up and release it so they get a lot all at once. You can pollute it. The odds are always in favor of the upstream riparian, and that obviously has been in the past a topic of serious negotiation between the two."

The 1922 Colorado River treaty between the United States (upstream) and Mexico (downstream), for example, has been a source of tension over the years. However, shared resources sometimes can result in unexpected cooperation, such as the sharing of the Jordan River watershed by Israel and Jordan.

Although computer modeling has become more sophisticated in recent years, Kennedy pointed out that there is a great deal scientists do not know about predicting future environmental conditions on Earth.

"It suggests to me, at least, the difficulty of saying with respect to climate change that some particular preparation is necessary, because the outcome is so uncertain, it's hard to know," he concluded.

CISAC -- part of Stanford's Institute for International Studies -- brings together scholars, policymakers, business people and other experts dedicated to research and training in issues of international security. Previous CISAC forums have focused on nuclear proliferation, biological warfare and other terrorist threats.


By Mark Shwartz

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