Here is another inconvenient truth. Global warming is good news for parts of the world. This is truly awkward. A “planetary emergency” that affected everyone equally would be much easier to tackle.
However, climate change that hurts some places but helps others opens the way for dangerous political conflicts.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued this month, confirms that global warming puts large parts of the world at risk from the biblical woes of famine, flood and disease. The places most at risk are those that are already poor – sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.
But in northern Europe, agriculture will become more productive and the climate will improve. From a parochial British point of view, the latest IPCC report sounds like good news. It has taken off the table the single most threatening scenario – the paradoxical threat that “global warming” was going to make Britain much colder by shutting down the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that gives the UK a much warmer climate than its latitude implies. The latest thinking from IPCC scientists is that this is very unlikely to happen during the next century.
Global warming offers a positive bonanza for Russia. The legendary Russian winter gets more tolerable. As the permafrost retreats in Siberia new mineral resources are revealed – and huge new areas become available for settlement and cultivation.
In an irony that will infuriate environmentalists, oil companies are also likely to benefit from global warming. The US Geological Survey estimates that 25 per cent of the world’s known oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic Circle. As the ice melts, they become easier to exploit.
As a new paper in Environment and Urbanization, an academic journal, makes clear, three-quarters of the 634m people deemed to be most at risk from rising sea levels connected to global warming live in Asia.
Coastal cities in the developed world, such as New York and Los Angeles, may be at risk. But wealthy countries are best placed to adapt to the problem. Certainly the Dutch, who have long experience of keeping the sea at bay, are not panicking. They are simply planning to spend billions more on flood defences.
Of course, even countries that may benefit directly from global warming could suffer indirectly – as other parts of the world descend into chaos. Britain is not an island (well, technically, Britain is an island – but you know what I mean). Dealing with refugees and desperate immigrants will only get harder as life becomes tougher in Africa and the Asian subcontinent.
In fact, it is now dawning on the world’s politicians that global warming could transform international relations – introducing a range of new issues and conflicts.
The most obvious problems are struggles over refugees and resources. Some argue that the Darfur conflict is partially caused by global warming, as settled farmers and nomadic herders fight over failing land. This sort of conflict could proliferate in the future.
Last month, a conference arranged by the US Army War College heard that: “Within a century, extreme drought will affect 30 per cent of the world, up from 3 per cent today.”
Water shortages are a particular threat. They have long been an underlying source of conflict in the Middle East. But as India and China run short of water, their neighbours are worried that struggles may arise over the diversion of rivers and the building of dams.
The idea that the Chinese are oblivious to the threat of global warming is untrue, as I discovered on a recent trip to Beijing. Officials were openly concerned that the Yangtze and Yellow rivers were at their lowest levels for years. Much of the problem is to do with irrigation and industrial use. But the Chinese believe that global warming is also contributing to water shortages because of its effect on rainfall and the glaciers that feed into Chinese rivers.
The government in Beijing faces a dilemma. Terrified of social unrest, it is reluctant to do anything that might slow economic growth – such as stopping the building of coal-fired power stations. Yet, water shortages are already causing social unrest in the countryside and the water table is falling fast in Beijing. One western analyst based in China speculates that the next political upheaval there could come “when people in Beijing turn on their taps in 2009 and find there is no water coming out”.
Global warming will not just provoke conflicts over scarcity. It may also cause struggles over the emergence of new resources – in particular, the oil and gas that lies underneath the Arctic. Outstanding territorial disputes between Canada and the US, between Russia and Norway, and between Denmark and Russia have taken on a new urgency in recent years, as these countries develop a new interest in hitherto unpromising stretches of ice.
Struggles over territory and borders are, at least, familiar ground for politicians and diplomats. But the new diplomatic world will increasingly be dominated by debates over the environment and international regimes for combating climate change.
The argument over global warming could quickly turn into the latest and bitterest struggle between the traditional industrialised countries and the developing world.
Any successor to the Bush administration is likely to be much more concerned about global action on climate change. And in 2009, just as a new administration settles down in Washington, China is likely to surpass the US as the world’s leading source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Although rich northern countries are best placed to cope with global warming, domestic public opinion means they are also likely to be the countries pushing hardest for new international regulations to tackle carbon dioxide emissions. In the US and Europe, climate change is becoming a new issue to berate China about – merging with protectionist concerns about exports from Chinese companies that practise “environmental dumping”.
But the Chinese will not lack allies in any struggle over who bears the costs of global warming. The Russians – with an economy based on fossil fuels, and a society that benefits from a warmer climate – may well stand with them. So could India and much of the developing world. Global warming presents a formidable environmental and scientific challenge. The political consequences may prove just as vexing.