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Climate change isn't just coming, it's already here — and the world's leading economic powers need to be ready to act before a simmering problem turns into a boiling crisis.
That's the conclusion of a new report prepared for the Group of Seven nations, which at their latest summit have pledged to eliminate fossil fuels by the end of the century. But many of the effects of warming are already baked in — and the worst effects are expected to be felt in the developing world, where they can compound existing political stresses or accelerate emerging ones.
"You can't just take kind of the long-term view of, say, abandon fossil fuels by 2100, and think that that solves the problem," report co-author Dan Smith told VICE News. "Whatever we do for the next 30 to 40 years, we are going to be living with the consequences of what we have been doing to the natural environment of the last one hundred and fifty. What this report is about is, in a sense, what you need to do to survive the storm until it abates."
The effects are already stretching aid groups, which will be asked to respond to more and more disasters in the future said Smith, secretary-general of the London-based peacebuilding NGO International Alert.
The G7 doesn't have the sole responsibility to tackle the issue, but it has a "singular opportunity" to address it this year, the report notes. The document identifies five problems the G7 should be stepping up to address before crises develop, like making plans for heading off potential food and water shortages and helping developing countries prepare to manage "interdependent and systemic" risks.
"The sharpest risks emerge when the impacts of climate change overburden weak states," the report states. "Climate change is the ultimate 'threat multiplier:' It will aggravate already fragile situations and may contribute to social upheaval and even violent conflict."
The report was co-written by several US and European organizations, including the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the German think-tank Adelphi. It was commissioned by Germany, which now holds the G7's rotating presidency.
The report goes further than others into the question of how climate change could contribute to future instability and conflict, said Francesco Femia, director of the US-based Center for Climate and Security. Earlier reports from environmental bodies like the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change have focused far more on the physical science of climate change than on its expected impacts on international relations, he said.
"It's about making sure that governments are really kind of integrating climate risks into everything they do, rather than seeing it as this sort of separate silo," Femia told VICE News. "It's basically setting maybe an unprecedented direction for the G7, which is that this is no longer just an environmental issue. This is an issue our foreign ministers, our defense ministers, our heads of state need to take very seriously."
For instance, the severe drought that wracked northern Syria in the last decade drove farmers off their land and into cities, where they struggled to find work. Numerous analysts have said their plight became one more piece of tinder that fueled the discontent that erupted into civil war in 2011.
Many of the countries the report identifies as being at high risk for climate-related strife are already among the world's hot spots: Somalia, Afghanistan, and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
But climate can fuel upheaval in other, less direct ways as well, the report notes. For instance, Thailand's botched response to flooding from record monsoon rains in 2011 triggered anti-government demonstrations there. And the winter of discontent that toppled longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was worsened by a spike in wheat prices that had its roots in drought that struck farmers in China and Russia.
And in the coming years, the expected warming is likely to drive changes in sea levels, in water supplies in South Asia and the Middle East, and in the increasingly open Arctic that could fuel new disputes among superpowers like China, Russia and the United States, smaller nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, or potential nuclear powers like Iran.
"We don't dilly-dally on nuclear weapons issues or nuclear proliferation because it's not highly likely that we're going to see a nuclear weapon detonated in the next 20 years; we do it because the consequences of a nuclear weapon being detonated are unacceptable," said Femia, whose organization's leadership includes several retired generals and admirals. "We should look at climate change the same way."
That means addressing the issue in a way that averts the worst of the expected consequences and helps countries adapt to what can't be avoided: "There's no silver bullet, there's silver buckshot," he said.
It's too simplistic to blame any war or revolution on climate change, Smith said: "No war is ever caused by a single thing." The real question, he said, "is in what ways do the consequences interact with other aspects to cause insecurity for ordinary people in different parts of the world — and the second question is, what can be done about that."
The report recommends that the world's richest nations need to address those problems in an interconnected way — not just as a matter for an environmental agency, but one that requires the involvement of multiple agencies or aid organizations.
For instance, a water project or a power plant might help farmers or make it easier for a city to accommodate migration from the countryside — but it might also worsen a country's internal conflicts unwittingly by aiding one faction over another, Smith said. The flip side of that is that some efforts to resolve conflicts might be at odds with efforts to adapt to a changing climate.
"There are a lot of components of what needs to be done that are being done now," Smith said. "But they're not being linked up properly, and it's not being done systematically, and the best practice is not the standard practice."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl