Why the Peace Prize?

Evan Mills - December 30, 2007

Mills is a staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the University of California.

My neighbor chided me: "Why did Al Gore and your scientific panel (the IPCC) share the Nobel Peace Prize?" What in the world does climate change have to do with Peace?"

Many now recognize, among other signs, that the snows of Kilimanjaro are vanishing because of global warming and climate change, but wonder why the military would be concerned. The answer: conflict will be sparked as rising seas inundate a hot an increasingly parched planet, compounding resource scarcity and poverty. Armed conflicts will break out in some cases. The U.S. military has been examining the climate-conflict link—largely out of the public eye—since at least 2003, when the Pentagon [PDF] conducted an assessment.

The 2007 Peace Prize more visibly links climate change with international security. The Nobel Committee warned that climate change "may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources."

Climate change has indeed already contributed to the drought that helped ignite the Darfur crisis, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Across Africa and elsewhere, one to three billion people are facing life-threatening water shortages and deteriorating water quality. Former CIA Director James Woolsey predicted that mass migrations of environmental refugees across Latin American borders following the disappearance of glaciers and the water they provide could compromise security more hastily than any Chavez-backed rebellion ever could.

Closer to home, climate change is a serious threat to U.S. national security, or so concluded a 2007 study [PDF] by a blue-ribbon panel of eleven retired admirals and generals from all branches of the armed services. Their message is that "climate change is a 'threat multiplier' in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states—the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism." The concern is being echoed by the U.N. Security Council and various security think tanks.

And so wars over oil will likely be accompanied by wars over water as rivers shrivel in a warming world. Extraction of resources often breeds civil unrest and international tensions, and drought and waterborne disease—which will be amplified by climate change—underpin much of the world's poverty.

Who will control the newly thawed Northwest Passage? Russian subs dove to the polar seafloor in 2007 to plant their flag. Territorial lines will be redrawn as the geography of the arctic changes. Control over billions of dollars of natural resources—ironically, oil, gas, and coal—will be up for grabs as the arctic ice recedes.

Splintering ice sheets and rising sea levels have already slammed indigenous cultures from the Arctic to the Pacific Islands with economic catastrophe and cultural extinction, spawning human-rights litigation and diplomatic conflict with the world's most polluting countries.

Some gambits to reverse climate change will carry their own security risks. A renaissance of nuclear power—a largely carbon-free way of making electricity that some hope will now enjoy a renaissance—would entail a double-whammy of enormous demand for cooling water combined with mounting weapons-proliferation risks. This dynamic underlies much of the present high-stakes tension with Iran.

There is growing awareness of how climate change can affect natural disasters, ecosystems, and human health. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize broadend the discussion by bringing the implications for poverty and security into sharper focus.


    • The "Pentagon Study" - An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security. October 2003. [PDF]

    • The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change. 2007. Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, authors including James Woolsey former CIA director. [PDF]

    • National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. 2007. CNA Corporation, with a senior military advisory board. [PDF]

    • The World's Water - history of water-linked conflicts

    • Russia's Deep-Sea Flag-Planting at North Pole Strikes a Chill in Canada. 2007. Washington Post [Online version] [PDF]