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Published: December 9, 2007
It took years for a consensus on the existence and causes of climate change to emerge. But it took no time at all, it seems, for leaders around the world to latch onto the notion that global warming will bring war. In the spring, a report by retired U.S. generals and admirals called on Washington to incorporate climate change, especially its destabilizing effect on weak states, into the United States' national defense strategy. Soon after, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in The Washington Post that the origin of the brutal fighting between herders and farmers in Darfur was an extended drought that was tied to the warming of the Indian Ocean — itself the product of new weather patterns driven by human activity. And then Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his climate-change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." What does global warming have to do with peace? In the view of the Nobel panel, it "may induce large scale migration and lead to greater competition for the Earth's resources ... and increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states."

It stands to reason that the consequences scientists expect from global warming (droughts, floods, failed crops) would worsen the problems that can lead to conflict (poverty, inequality, refugee flows). But Idean Salehyan, a political scientist at the University of North Texas, warns against making too much of that point. There's little empirical data linking scarcity to conflict, he argues; if anything, people tend to fight over the abundance of resources.

Given such complexities, at least some of the talk about climate conflict may be understood as rhetoric. For environmentalists, it can be a way to instill a sense of urgency. For security advocates, it could be another reason to advocate militaristic policies they would advocate anyway: in the military officers' report, T. Joseph Lopez, a retired admiral, wrote, "Climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.