By Manuel Manonelles¬†(*)
BARCELONA, Dec (IPS) – Little by little, it is being confirmed that¬†the melting of the polar ice caps, whether in Antarctica or the¬†Arctic, is happening significantly faster than initially predicted.¬†The consequences of this for peace, one of the main victims of¬†climate change, are enormous.
Glaciers and areas of high-altitude mountains that were previously¬†considered zones of perpetual snow are now melting.¬†A paradigmatic case is that of the alpine border between¬†Switzerland and Italy where during a recent routine verification,¬†certain sections of ice or perennial snow that had been on the map¬†since 1861 were found to be missing. In this case, the two¬†countries have enjoyed long periods of peaceful coexistence and are¬†approaching the problem in a logical and cordial fashion, forming¬†a commission to find a technical solution.
However, the possible implications of cases like this in other¬†geographical areas are very worrisome. The destabilising potential¬†of a similar development on the India-Pakistan border would be¬†enormous, particularly in the zone of Kashmir or the Siachen¬†glacier, where more than 3000 soldiers of both countries have died¬†since 1984. The same is true of the tense China-India border, or¬†the deeply problematic border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,¬†which will grow increasingly porous with melting, contributing to¬†a rise in destabilisation in what are already two of the most unstable¬†countries on the earth.
Another major effect of global warming is the gradual opening¬†of major global shipping lanes in areas that had previously been¬†impassable because of ice. The Northeast Passage along the north of¬†Russia, used recently for the first time in history, shortens¬†travel between the ports of China, Japan, and Korea and Hamburg,¬†Rotterdam, and South Hampton by 4,000 kilometres. With the Northwest¬†Passage along northern Canada, travel between the China and the¬†ports of the eastern United States is similarly shortened. The¬†opening of these new routes will completely change the dynamics of¬†intercontinental trade and might render irrelevant places that¬†until now were considered geostrategically essential, such as the¬†Panama and the Suez Canal.
Add to this the draw of massive reserves of raw materials¬†expected to be present in the Arctic, ever more accessible as the¬†ice recedes, which is provoking a race for control of the area¬†- including an arms race- and is stoking tensions particularly¬†between Russia, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Canada, and¬†the United States. The Russian news agency TASS has calculated oil¬†reserves in the area at over 10 billion tonnes. Last year Canada¬†approved an extraordinary 6.9 billion dollar arms bill to¬†strengthen its military presence in its arctic zone, while Russia¬†has resumed tactical flights of nuclear bombers in its polar¬†region, triggering the protests of numerous countries.
This also explains, in part, the speed with which the European¬†Union is processing the application for EU membership of bankrupt¬†Iceland, which would place the body in the best possible position¬†for future negotiations and territorial claims in the area with¬†regard to future access to the “Arctic banquet”.
The melting of the ice caps is also the major cause of rising sea¬†levels, which have other irreversible territorial, social, and¬†economic consequences, such as the physical disappearance -partial¬†or total- of certain small island states of the Pacific likely to occur¬†within a few years -the Maldives, Samoa, Kiribati, among others.¬†Obviously the implications are vast, including -in addition to the¬†personal, environmental, cultural, and national trauma- the¬†political and legal status of future states that have no territory.¬†The principal components of the global infrastructure, from ports¬†and refineries to airports and nuclear plants, are also seriously¬†at risk, and will find themselves near or at or even below sea¬†level.
It is important to note in this context that the majority of the¬†global population lives in areas close to the sea, starting with¬†megacities like Mumbai, London, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, and¬†Buenos Aires, and densely-populated areas like the Ganges delta in¬†Bangladesh, where rising sea levels are already wreaking havoc in¬†the form of water pollution and related effects. Recent studies¬†indicate the possibility of some 200 million new environmental¬†refugees in coming years -refugees who would only increase the¬†already considerable humanitarian pressures and tensions in these¬†areas and exacerbate existing or latent conflict.
The Global Humanitarian Fund issued a report this year that shows¬†unequivocally that climate change today is responsible for some¬†300,000 deaths per year. Numbers for the medium and long-term are¬†even higher. In this context, the urgency of fighting climate¬†is a pre-condition for a peaceful future. Therefore, the¬†international community has no other option, specially after the¬†fiasco in Copenhagen, to spring into action as soon as¬†possible. It is about climate, but also about peace and human¬†lives.
(*) Manuel Manonelles is director of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace.