Society could collapse by 2050 under strain of climate change and conflict, paper warns

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An Australian policy paper warning that society could collapse amid climate change-related strife by 2050 is “plausible” if countries fail to take action, a leading Canadian climate scientist says.

The 12-page policy paper paints a scenario in which the international order breaks down after humans fail to band together and address the effects of climate change within the next two decades. Food supplies run low, economies collapse, disease kills millions, natural disasters ravage communities and mass migration strains many nations to the breaking point. Countries stop co-operating, and conflict eventually breaks out, plunging the world into war.

“This scenario provides a glimpse into a world of ‘outright chaos’ on a path to the end of human civilization and modern society as we know it,” authors David Spratt and Ian Dunlop write. Their paper is published through the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, an independent think tank based in Australia.

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Spratt and Dunlop present their scenario as a potential outcome for making policy decisions, not a prediction for the future. However, they hope it will prompt governments to treat climate change as a national security issue, not just an environmental or economic issue. The paper is endorsed by a former chief of the Australian Defence Force.

“This is an effort to take what is pretty well known in the scientific community and to broaden that to be a conversation about security,” said Kai Chan, a professor of climate science at the University of British Columbia. Chan also works with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and was a lead author on the UN’s recent report about biodiversity collapse. He did not have anything to do with the Australian policy paper.

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“You shouldn’t read this as two quacks going out on a limb,” Chan told Global News.

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He says the scenario outlined in the paper is “plausible” based on the assumption that no one will work together to stop climate change. He described the paper as an “appropriate part of the scientific discourse” because it connects some of the dots for climate scientists who are reluctant to sound too alarmist.

“It’s really just about broadening the conversation so that people don’t pigeonhole this as just being about wildlife and clean water,” he said.

He also points out that the paper’s doomsday scenario isn’t necessarily caused by climate change alone. Instead, climate change is merely a factor that puts strain on other problems in the geopolitical system, such as migration patterns, income inequality and climate-change denial.

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“Because of our interconnected markets and nations … breakdowns have ripple effects,” he said.

The United Nations and the U.S. government have released damning reports in recent months about the dire impact of climate change on biodiversity, the economy and weather patterns.

However, Spratt and Dunlop argue those reports are still too conservative with their estimates because they leave out a lot of negative climate change-related events that are hard to predict.

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Chan says Spratt and Dunlop are right in that most major climate-change reports are often edited to satisfy more than 100 different nations with competing agendas.

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“They somewhat under-represent the risks,” he said.

Spratt and Dunlop are not the first ones to present climate change as a national security issue. The U.S. intelligence community also included climate change as a risk factor in its annual world threat assessment report to Congress.

“Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress and social discontent through 2019 and beyond,” the threat assessment report said. The report highlights potential disasters such as extreme weather events and melting sea ice as major factors that could bring the U.S. into conflict with other nations for territory and resources.

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Climate change is already presenting a national security threat in many parts of the world, according to several experts who spoke at the Planetary Security Conference at The Hague in February.

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“Climate change fuels the roots of conflict around the globe and poses a direct threat to populations and installations in coastal areas and small islands,” Gen. Tom Middendorp, a former Dutch defence chief, said at the conference.

“It should, therefore, be taken very seriously as a major security issue that needs to be addressed,” Middendorp said in his speech. “The military can and should be part of the solution.”

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