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Climate Change as a Global Security Threat
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By Graciela Chichilnisky and C. J. Polychroniou

It has been said that the "science" of climate change is a young and thus imprecise science, but global warming is undeniably a real and mostly human caused phenomenon with severe implications for the future of the planet. 

Indeed, according to NASA’s Global Climate Change, "The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years."[1]

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of scientists (approximately ninety seven percent) agree  with the above assessment on climate change[2], while the same can probably be said about today's world leaders, although the latter group failed to produce a comprehensive strategy for addressing the advancing menace of global warming at the Paris COP21 climate change conference, which was held from 30 November to 12 December 2015.[3]

Rising temperatures are not only melting Antarctic ice but are considered to be a significant cause of floods, as the ones currently experienced in many parts of the United Kingdom and across the U.S. Midwest. And who can forget last summer's heat wave in India which killed more than 2,500 people, prompting a warning both government officials and scientists that this could be just the beginning of widespread heat-related deaths in a changing climate with increasing temperatures.

To be sure, in the United States, studies have shown that heat is associated with excess mortality in many regions of the country, and climate change is thought to be contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing over $1 trillion to the global economy. [4]

To say then that climate change is a real and urgent problem would be an understatement, although this is not to deny the fact that there are still plenty of climate change deniers around and more than plenty of powerful forces that stand to lose as a result of economic adjustments that seek to control climate change.

Satellites that have recorded temperatures over the last few decades confirm that humans are the main cause of climate change.

Greenhouse gases, caused primarily by the burning of fuel fossils, are the principal driver in the changes in global surface temperatures.

Of course, all modern economies are based on fossil fuels, which means shifting to alternative energy sources will be hard and it will take time to accomplish.

Nonetheless, inaction will surely prove to be utterly catastrophic in the years ahead for the entire planet. 

As the authors of a recently published book on climate change point out, even "average global warming above 2°C (3.6°F) could trigger potentially devastating events." [5]

With a global average warming of 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit), the same authors warn, even the word "catastrophic" would be inaccurate in capturing the scale of the destruction that would follow.

Global sea levels would rise and many coastal cities would sink into the oceans. Crop output would be lowered significantly, with prices rising exponentially, and food production and distribution would be affected across the board. Rising temperatures will cause increasingly severe and long-lasting droughts, with simply immeasurable economic and social consequences. Floods and tropical storms will also increase in many parts of the world, wiping out fast areas of crops and causing massive infrastructure damage.

Climate change will cause massive human migration that will make today's scale of refugees streaming into Europe resemble a garden tea party.[6]

With increasing temperatures, one can expect social unrest, violence and chaos also to increase, creating new political and social challenges, which will have, undoubtedly, enormous repercussions on notions like "democracy," "individual liberties" and "human rights."

In sum, civilized life itself, as we know it, will be severely affected. In this context, climate change must be treated as a global security threat. Indeed, a recent Pentagon report identified climate change as one of the highest risks in US national security. [7]

So, what can be done about global warming and climate change?

To the disappointment of a certain variant of the environmentally conscious community, individual actions in response to the challenges posed by global warming are like drops in the ocean.

As individuals, we all have an obligation and responsibility to the planet's ecosystem, which means we have to pitch in every way we know how in order to help save the environment and reduce carbon dioxide omissions (recycling, driving and flying less, using less air conditioning, and so on), but any effective response to climate change must be systemic.

The actions undertaken by individual countries will not suffice to prevent the planet from getting hotter. A global problem requires a global response.

For starters, we need to transform our energy system by moving away from coal and other fossil fuels.

Secondly, cap and trade approaches for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are mostly favored by economists, need to be supplemented by a regulatory approach. Leaving everything up to market forces has proven a disastrous approach across the economic and social spectrum.

Thirdly, there must be a systemic approach to reducing tropical deforestation, including systematic monitoring and analysis of deforestation and a crackdown on corruption in environmental agencies.

Fourthly, there needs to be substantial increases in green technology investments by the public sector.

Eco-investing requires the kind of attention that is usually assigned by nations to national and international security issues, as the Pentagon argues in its recent report.

And it must be done on a global level, probably with the creation of a global public fund that would allocate resources to all countries so they can invest in green technology.

This can be achieved with funding from the Carbon Market of the Kyoto Protocol – the EU Emission Trading System, provided we extend into the future the mandatory carbon emissions limits that are the foundation of the Carbon Market.

There is nearly unanimous agreement on the importance of a price on carbon that the Carbon Market accomplishes including in public representations by the six largest oil and gas companies in the EU including BP, Shell, Engie, and Total. Exxon itself has recently pronounced itself in favor of the carbon market. Yet without mandatory emission limits an international carbon market, which is needed, cannot function and nothing was done on this respect in the widely advertised and somewhat empty handed Paris Agreement in December 2015.

Still, all of the above actions, while necessary, are not sufficient to keep rising temperatures at bay as there is too much carbon dioxide accumulated in the air, and thus it must be removed.

The technology for capturing carbon from the air is not only available and feasible, but highly economical as well. It is possible now to build carbon negative power plants.

Global Thermostat in Menlo Park California has an operating plant in the heart of Silicon Valley, and this technology is ready for commercial use all over the world. This technology, and the carbon negative power plants it can produce, addresses and can resolve the damages caused by the main culprit in causing excessive global emissions: the $55 trillion power plant infrastructure that produces the world’s electricity.

Power plants are the source of about 45% of all global emissions, and they are also 45% of the emissions originating in the US and even more in China, the two largest emitters. The carbon removal solution is now commercially valid since the costs of removing CO2 from air have now dropped sufficiently that profits are made by removing the CO2 and selling it for industrial gases, plastic and building materials production, for food and beverages, and even to produce synthetic gasoline – although the latter is an area that is tied to the price of petroleum and is not favored right now.

Developing nations need energy – indeed their increased energy use is expected to double energy production by 2050. With carbon negative power plants poor nations can have the energy they need to grow and at the same time can clean the planet’s atmosphere, reducing the global risks induced by a volatile climate – destructive droughts followed by record floods –as well as the massive waves of immigration that this causes for lack of water and food.

The time has come to deploy technology – a solution that helped overcome the SO2 acid rain problem  – in order to resolve the danger to human civilization that is created by the burning of fossil fuels and the corresponding carbon emissions.


1. NASA: Global Climate Change, "Climate change: how do we know?" http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

2. NASA: Global Climate Change, "Scientific consensus: Earth's climate is warming."


3. See Graciela Chichilnisky and C. J. Polychroniou, "Paris COP21 Climate Agreement is Bound to Nothing? What is the Solution?" E-International Relations, December 29, 2015.


4. Fiona Harvey, "Climate change is already damaging global economy, report finds." The Guardian (September 26, 2012)

5. Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 14.

6. C. J. Polychroniou, "Refugee crisis exposes massive flaws in EU governance." Al Jazeera, August 28, 2015.

7. http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/612710; and http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/220575-pentagon-unveils-plan-to-fight-climate-change


Graciela Chichilnisky is Professor of Economics and of Statistics at Columbia University, Visiting Professor at Stanford University, the author of the Kyoto Protocol Carbon Market, and CEO of Global Thermostat. Visit her website www.chichilnisky.com and you can contact her at g.chichilnisky@stanford.edu.

C.J. Polychroniou is an international political economist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. He is the author and editor of five books and scores of academic articles, policy papers, and popular essays.




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