Talking in London last week, Sir David King, the UK’s former chief scientific advisor warned of “resource wars” as climate change fuels a scramble for commodities, in particular scarce resources. Describing the Iraq war was only the first of this century’s “resource wars”, in which powerful countries use force to secure valuable commodities, King predicts that rapid population growth, depleting natural resources, and seas rising due to climate change, the scarcity of vital resources will lead to more conflict.

“Future historians might look back on our particular recent past and see the Iraq war as the first of the conflicts of this kind – the first of the resource wars,” he told an audience of 400 in London as he delivered the British Humanist Association’s Darwin Day lecture.

He rejects the US and British governments’ claim they went to war to remove Saddam Hussein and search for weapons of mass destruction, adding that the US had in reality been very concerned about energy security and supply, due to its increasing reliance on foreign oil from unstable states. “Casting its eye around the world – there was Iraq,” he said.

This strategy could also be used to find and keep supplies of other essentials, such as minerals, water and fertile land as supplies feel the strain of growing populations. Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” details the collapse of civilisations under similar scarcity and environmental problems. If things do come to the point where the world’s natural resources become the focus of conflict, it will inevitably be the survival of the fittest, richest and most powerful nations at the expense of the developing world.  

“Unless we get to grips with this problem globally, we potentially are going to lead ourselves into a situation where large, powerful nations will secure resources for their own people at the expense of others.”

King, who is now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University discussed his efforts to persuade the Bush administration to adopt more climate-friendly policies before the war. “I went into the White House in 2001 to persuade them that de-carbonising their economy was the way forward. I didn’t get much shrift at that time. What I can tell you is that, if I had managed to persuade the government of America that investing (instead of going into Iraq) in de-carbonising their economy with roughly a tenth of [the estimated $3 trillion the US spent on the war], they would have managed it.”

The concept of “resource wars” was echoed by Alex Evans, of the Centre for International Co-operation at New York University.

King’s lecture – Can British Science Rise to the Challenges of the 21st Century? – was a clear message to politician not to allow the financial crisis to distract them from tackling climate change.

 “I would like to see [in] every speech Gordon Brown makes on the fiscal crisis, that he also includes the global warming crisis,” he said, but added: “It’s fine for the prime minister to make a good speech on climate change, but you need all members of the cabinet, because reducing carbon by 80% by 2050 will require every part of government to respond.” King said.

He echoed Stern’s views, backing a Green New Deal earlier last week. Stern’s new report claims that $400bn (£277bn) should be channelled to support low-carbon technologies such as home insulation and renewable energy. Given the urgency of both the economic and climate crises, the team of economists that worked on the report want the green investment made by this summer and to total 20% of the £1.4tn likely to be spent globally as fiscal stimulus.

Lord Stern said: “With billions about to be spent by governments on energy, buildings and transport, it is vital that these public investments do not lock us for many more decades into a costly and unsustainable high-carbon economy.”

The report assesses the likely success of investment in a variety of green policies, pin-pointing energy efficiency measures for homes and public buildlings, boiler replacement programmes, efforts to fit cleaner appliances and lights, and a switch to renewable sources of heat, such as biomass, as key low carbon options. It also recommends further investment into energy R&D and streamlined planning to promote renewable energy projects such as wind farms, and moves to encourage less polluting vehicles by adjusting car tax bands. A green stimulus could provide a boost to the economy, create jobs and build the foundations for strong, sustainable growth in the future, the report says.

A call for bold policies to drive a Green New Deal” was also made by Lord Chris Smith, the chairman the Environment Agency, in his first major speech last week. Further support for a green new deal is expected tomorrow in a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme.

King summed up by saying that with growing population and dwindling resources, fundamental changes to the global economy and society were necessary. “Consumerism has been a wonderful model for growing up economies in the 20th century. Is that model fit for purpose in the 21st century, when resource shortage is our biggest challenge?”

Unfortunately the answer to this question isn’t as simple as it sounds. In a world where politicians are more concerned with economic development, and the power that rewards them with on a global scale, environmental challenges pose a difficult path requiring huge cultural changes in behaviour. The difficult task of how to actually deliver such changes within 41 years is staring the government stark in the face.

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