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Warming 'threat to Asian security'

Grim scenario of disease and disaster

By Geoff Hiscock, CNN

People queue in New Delhi for water during this week's heat wave.



Disasters (General)

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Rapid global warming poses a variety of security threats to the Asia Pacific region that have been "seriously underestimated," a new study says.

The report, released Tuesday by a Sydney-based think tank, paints a grim scenario of disease, food and water shortages, natural disasters, territorial tensions and mass population movements threatening political stability in the region.

Rising sea levels, for example, could threaten heavily urbanized parts of Asia, such as China's Yellow and Yangzi River deltas, and heavily populated low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, the report entitled "Heating up the Planet: Climate Change and Security," by the Lowy Institute says.

Warmer temperatures could see the greater spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, while extreme weather events could diminish food and clean water supplies.

And large, unregulated movements of people could put a heavy strain on the capacity of nations to cope, particularly if there are pre-existing ethnic and social tensions.

Besides Bangladesh and China's east coast, other communities at risk from rising sea levels include Manila Bay in the Philippines, the coastal fringes of Indonesia's Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan, and the Mekong, Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy deltas in Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar respectively.

Many small islands in the Pacific would be inundated, while the loss of economic rights associated with atolls and rocky outcrops off the East Asian coast could trigger territorial tensions.

The authors, Australian academics Dr. Alan Dupont and Dr. Graeme Pearman, argue that "there is no longer much doubt that the world is facing a prolonged period of planetary warming," that has been fueled largely by modern lifestyles.

Tipping point

They say that while people have coped with climate change in the past when it has been spread over centuries or longer, it is the potential rapidity of change that makes the threat so significant now.

"Compressed within the space of a single century, global warming will present far more daunting challenges of human and biological adaptation," they say.

Abrupt climate change could push the plant's fragile ecosystem "past an environmental tripping point from which there will be no winners," Dupont and Pearman say.

The most effective way to lessen the security risk of this prospective climate change is to reduce the level of greenhouse gases that are responsible for heating up the planet.

The Lowy Institute report says the impact of climate change will add to destabilizing pressures on the region.

It points to low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, where a one-meter rise in sea-level would flood 17.5 percent of its area and much of its food basket in the Ganges River delta.

"Far from exaggerating the impact of climate change, it is possible that scientists may have underestimated the threat," the study's authors say.

They identify a number of climatic wild cards, which are low-probability events with high impact. They include the collapse of the global Thermohaline (deep-ocean) Circulation, which could trigger a rapid cooling of Europe's climate, a de-oxygenation of the deep ocean, and reduced capacity of the oceans to absorb part of the released carbon dioxide.

They say another wild card may be the way aerosols are masking the real level of global warming, pointing to the Asian "brown haze" that stretches from the northern Indian Ocean to China and Southeast Asia during the northern summer.

Five complications

According to the report, climate change will complicate the regional security environment in several ways:

  • Weather extremes and greater fluctuations in rainfall and temperatures could quickly refashion the Asia-Pacific region's productive landscape and exacerbate food, water and energy scarcities. Rising sea levels are of particular concern because of the density of coastal populations and the potential for large-scale displacement of people in Asia.
  • Climate change will contribute to destabilizing, unregulated population movements in Asia and the Pacific. While most of these flows are likely to be internal, their ripple effects will be felt beyond the borders of the states most affected, requiring cooperative regional solutions.
  • More extreme weather patterns will result in greater death and destruction from natural disasters, adding to the burden on poorer countries and stretching the resources and coping ability of even the most developed nations.
  • Extreme weather events and climate-related disasters will not only trigger short-term disease spikes but also have more enduring health security consequences, since some infectious diseases will become more widespread as the planet heats up.
  • Even if not catastrophic in themselves, the cumulative impact of rising temperatures, sea levels and more mega droughts on agriculture, fresh water and energy could threaten the security of states in the region by reducing their carrying capacity below a minimum threshold.
  • The study concludes with a number of recommendations, including a cut in the level of greenhouse gases.

    It says this would require a "fundamental transformation" of the world's approach to energy use, with cleaner coal, more fuel-efficient hybrid cars and the increased use of gas, nuclear power and renewable energy sources.

    It says relying on fossil fuels inevitably would warm the planet to levels that would put unprecedented stress on its ecosystem, and "challenge the adaptive capacities of future generations."

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