Jürgen Scheffran is an adjunct professor in the departments of political science and of atmospheric sciences, a senior research scientist in the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security and assistant director for education in the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research. He previously worked at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and is actively involved in research on renewable energy and on the security risks of climate change.
How significant is it that Nobel Prize Committee chose Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for this year's Peace Prize?
The decision is remarkable because it links the issues of environment and peace. The prize committee recognizes that extensive climate changes and greater competition for Earth's resources could lead to an increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize at the same time to a politician and a group of scientists demonstrates that both science and politics are crucial to find solutions. Implementing these solutions requires joint efforts by the international community, including the United States, to help stabilize climate change at levels that will avoid disruption of global security and stability. With such an approach, the challenges of global warming facing humanity would lead to more international cooperation rather than conflict. Common threats deserve common responses. The Nobel Prize committee concludes with a strong statement: Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man's control.
Will global warming lead to more conflicts?
This is hard to prove since global warming is still in its early stage. Climate-related shocks will likely add stress to the world's existing conflicts. For instance, in the Middle East water scarcity has traditionally been intertwined with the region's conflicts. In Northern Africa desertification pushes population to move southward, contributing to the struggle for land between herders and farmers. According to a recent U.N. study the Darfur region in Sudan is considered a tragic example of a social breakdown associated with ecological collapse. In a climate that triggers a cycle of environmental degradation, economic decline, social unrest and political instability, violence may indeed become more likely. Conflicts may spread to neighboring states, for example, through refugee and resource flows or arms exports, which can destabilize regions and overstretch governance structures. Recently the U.N. Security Council for the first time discussed the security risks of climate change, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that climate change may pose as much of a danger as war. A blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals sees climate change as a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions of the world, becoming breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism and thus an issue for US national security.
How serious are the security risks associated with climate change?
In its recent assessment reports the IPCC addresses serious risks that could undermine the living conditions of people all over the world. Storm and flood disasters would affect large populations, for instance in Southern Asia where already hundreds of thousands of people suffer from extreme weather events. The melting of glaciers jeopardizes water supply in the Andean and Himalayan regions. Droughts in Africa force people to struggle for water and fertile land. The degradation of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity and the spread of diseases would destabilize natural and social systems. The potential loss of the Amazon rainforest, a shift in the Asian monsoon or the shutdown of the Northatlantic circulation would have dramatic consequences on continental scales. Sea-level rise affects populated coastal regions across the whole planet. Most vulnerable are poor communities in high-risk areas and developing countries with low adaptive capacities. But wealthy countries are not spared. During the 2003 heatwave in Europe more than 30,000 people died, and Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the inability of the world's most powerful nation to cope with such a natural disaster, whether related to climate change or not. If such events become more likely as projected, they could lead to large-scale migrations and a struggle for food and water, negatively affecting human security and the stability of social systems.