Call of Duty: Black Ops III takes place in a climate change nightmare—a future with rising oceans, droughts, and superstorms changing the political landscape. Resource wars tear northern Africa apart as Ethiopian dams cut off Egypt’s access to the Nile. Singapore, vulnerable due to its low-lying geography, gets ravaged by typhoons on a regular basis.
Though this may seem like science fiction, it’s a future that U.S. defense planners increasingly believe is just around the corner. Indeed, some academics believe we’re already living in the age of climate change wars.
A PRESSURE COOKER HEATING UP
It’s a rare day when Obama and Call of Duty are on the same page, but that’s what happened on Nov. 30 of last year. During the President’s speech at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, he described a future not far from the one predicted in Black Ops III: “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.”
Obama is by no means alone in considering these predictions realistic—think tanks, military journals, academics and the CIA have all released alarming reports about the geopolitical risks of climate change. Conflict, after all, often centers around resources and geography, and global warming has the potential to alter both.
Two of the people banging the drums are Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, co-founders and directors of the policy nonprofit The Center for Climate Change and Security. The Center leapt to public consciousness in early 2013 with their seminal report “The Arab Spring and Climate Change,” which linked the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to issues such as droughts and crop failures.
But Femia and Werrell are quick to point out that climate change doesn’t start wars—the relationship is subtler than that.
“Climate change is what the U.S. military calls a threat multiplier,” the two told me in an email interview. “That means it makes other risks to human and national security, such as water and food stress, worse. When you add climate change on top of existing social, political and economic insecurity, you can increase the likelihood of state failure and conflict.”
Take the current Syrian Civil War, for instance. From 2006 to 2010, Syria experienced one of the worst long-term droughts in its history. Normally the country could’ve absorbed the hit, but the drought came on the heels of President Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to create a market economy by incentivising water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton. These policies had already depleted Syria’s aquifers, and as a result, 75% of farmers experienced total crop failure.
As rural agricultural workers lost everything, 1.5 million Syrians moved into the cities looking for work—cities that were already restless from Assad’s authoritarian policies and an influx of refugees from Iraq and Palestine. It was a powder keg waiting for a match.
Put simply: Assad’s repressive tactics were the primary reason for the conflict, but the drought helped create the conditions for revolt.
But it’s important to note that this isn’t simple A to B logic. Syria might have stayed together had the drought not joined other factors—sectarian strife, the Arab Spring, refugees, and social networks—that contributed to Dara’a exploding in 2011. Likewise, had Assad’s government responded to the mounting humanitarian crisis or taken responsibility for its role in depleting the country’s aquifers, the results might not have been so violent or lasting.
This hypothesis is no surprise to the U.S. military. In 2014 the Pentagon released a report declaring climate change an immediate threat to national security, but the military was expressing concern about global warming as far back as 1990. The CIA is onboard too. Both have expressed concern that a warming world will see greater risk from famine and terrorism and an increased spread of infectious diseases.
But mostly, everyone’s worried about water.
’THE ONLY MATTER THAT COULD TAKE EGYPT TO WAR AGAIN IS WATER’
Water is vital to human life. It sustains us, washes us, grows our food, runs our sewers, and even generates our electricity. One of the first recorded wars—which occurred around 2,500 BCE—started when a Mesopotamian kingdom diverted a river away from its neighbor.
In Black Ops III, this age-old competition splits the Middle East. With the Nile’s flow decreasing at an alarming rate, several nations in North Africa band together to form the Ethiopian-led Nile River Coalition (“NRC”). Egypt, originally pressured to join the NRC due to its large underground aquifers, exits the coalition via a violent uprising and soon finds itself under siege from its erstwhile allies.
This scenario is based around a real dispute over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.7 billion project that Ethiopia began in 2013. The project terrified Egypt, which lies downstream and relies on the Nile for water. Tensions came to a head shortly afterward when Egyptian leaders discussed taking military action—apparently unaware their conversation was being broadcast on live TV.
Egypt’s former president, Anwar Sadat, once said that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” It seemed like that prediction was coming true.
Yet there was no war. Instead of deploying troops, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan settled the matter with a very un-Call of Duty tool: diplomacy. The draft agreement allowed Ethiopia to construct the dam, provided it “did not cause any harm to downstream countries.”
Still, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said the project remains a source of concern.
As climate change lessens our supply of fresh water, experts warn that disputes such as this one may become more common. Warmer air means the atmosphere can hold more moisture, and will dump an increased amount of rainfall when the air cools. That sounds alright, but heavier rainfall flows into the ocean at a faster rate, decreasing our ability to use it. Higher temperatures will also turn snowfall into fast-evaporating rain. Finally, the inland glaciers that feed mountain rivers and streams will eventually melt, transferring their water into the ocean and rendering it undrinkable.
While the thought of “water wars” gets headlines, research indicates that countries generally don’t fight each other over water rights—instead, they solve disputes via diplomacy and trade agreements. But while water may not spark wars, it absolutely drives conflicts among competing groups within the same country. Thirst is likely not, apparently, a force that will cause World War III, although it can spark violent internal unrest.
Yet Femia and Werrell of The Center for Climate Change and Security caution that historical models may not hold true in the future: “Though the historical record has shown that water stress can actually facilitate cooperation between conflicting parties, we’re entering uncharted territory. The risks will only increase if we do not put forward policies that are commensurate to the risk.”
They point out that the Middle East and North Africa, which are seeing declines in winter precipitation, are particularly vulnerable to drought due to their dry environments. These areas also tend to rely on hydroelectric power, meaning droughts can trigger power cuts and an energy crisis.
“As the winters get drier, and population growth places strains on water resources, countries will have to make hard choices between food and energy production that will not always prove popular or equitable,” they said.
Unfairly distributing resources, they add, can lead to major governance crises. And some governments could use the resource stresses as an excuse to roll out authoritarian policies. “If countries in the region are unable or unwilling to provide food, water or energy to their populations in both an immediate and sustainable way, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to establish legitimacy, and maintain stable and free societies in the region.”
THE RISING TIDE
While some regions may dry up, others will become wetter than ever. As Arctic glaciers melt at an alarming rate, sea level rise is beginning to eat away at the world’s coastlines—and that’s an alarming development for a number of reasons.
Black Ops III deals with the most obvious one: that our coastal megacities may drown. The game depicts Singapore as a near-abandoned metropolis battered by super typhoons that drive waves down its streets and alleys. A large section of the city has been evacuated after a mysterious industrial accident, in a clear reference to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan.
Black Ops III works on the assumption that sea level will rise 18 inches by 2065. That’s on the extreme end of the scale. Most estimates suggest that by 2100, we’ll see sea level rise between one and four feet, though it’s more likely one than four. The rate’s alarmed U.S. military inspectors, who took a whirlwind tour of 7,600 installations in 2014 to assess how climate change is affecting readiness. They showed particular concern for sea level rise around Hampton Roads, where the WWII-era piers at Norfolk Naval Base are so damaged from the rise that all 14 may have to be replaced, at a cost of $35-40 million each.
There are methods to counteract sea level rise. Singapore’s a low-lying city, but estimates suggest seawalls should hold back the tide. But that may not work in parts of China,Vietnam and Bangladesh that are also vulnerable, and some nations— like the Maldives and the Cook Islands—may disappear completely. A recent New York Times report offered stark footage of the Marshall Islands, where tides carry away bits of houses on a daily basis.
This begs the question of where these “climate refugees” will go when their land disappears. Some propositions involve moving them to nearby coral atolls, while others would see nearby nations absorb entire populations as part of a mass-evacuation.
Large movements of refugees—whether relocating within the same country or crossing over a border—often inflame domestic tensions. While a small number usually poses little problem (the 10,000 Syrians the U.S. has agreed to accept, for example), an uncontrolled stream can cause instability as they strain government services and end up competing with locals.
Consider Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up 20% of the population and 41% of public school students. While Lebanon has done an admirable job of welcoming refugees, the displaced population still faces terrible poverty due to labor competition and lack of housing. Yet the integration has not destabilized the country–while there’s tension, there’s little violence.
Let’s hope our neighbors are that welcoming when our cities start to erode.
SEA CHANGE: NAVAL COOPERATION IN THE ARCTIC
But while Black Ops III predicts a world torn asunder by the altered planet, climate change may not always lead to greater conflict. Take the Arctic, for example. Several years ago a barrage of articles claimed the warming Arctic would unleash a resource scramble, with countries laying claim to oil deposits and shipping lanes in the newly-navigable waters.
That hasn’t proved to be the case, though, largely through the stabilizing efforts of the Arctic Council. The Council’s eight member countries—the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia—have kept peace in the region through a joint naval effort.
“The so-called scramble for Arctic resources now seems way overblown,” says Dr. Oran Young. Dr. Young, who serves as the co-director of the Program on Governance for Sustainable Development at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, has spent years studying the Arctic. “Responses to [climate change developments] can certainly lead to cooperation.”
Dr. Paul Berkman, also of UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School, agrees, adding that the opening of new resources may make conflict in the Arctic less likely. In fact, the potential for profit alone may help ensure the region’s security. “Peace and stability,” he adds, “are essential for investment.”
This Arctic cooperation, say Young and Berkman, offers key lessons about balancing national interests and common interests—a major challenge in addressing climate change. Incredibly, the Council has managed to support the common good without the deadlock that often marrs cooperation between Russia and NATO countries. Russia, experts agree, is an essential partner in keeping the peace in the Arctic Circle.
“The question is,” asks Dr. Young, “can we cooperate on Arctic issues, while at the same time engaging in competitive, or even conflictual, relations elsewhere, like in Ukraine and Syria?”
A COMFORTING APOCALYPSE
Ironically, the countries in Black Ops III are better at this cooperation than we are. In the game, the U.S. and China are both part of the Winslow Accord, a defense collective formed to confront common vulnerabilities like drone fleets and climate change.
While last year’s landmark Paris Agreement saw the U.S. and China uniting in the fight against carbon, there’s worries both may not live up to their commitments. China may have difficulty reigning in such a large and freewheeling industrial base, while in the U.S., the agreement faces opposition from industry groups and congress. Last year, congressional Republicans even attempted to slash portions of the CIA and Department of Defense budget set aside for studying the defense implications of climate change.
Strangely enough, after years of political rancor and denialism, there’s something comforting about the flooded cities and empty reservoirs of Black Ops III. Sure the planet’s boned—like, forget-prevention-let’s-just-mitigate-it boned—but at least everyone acknowledges it’s a real problem. No one’s throwing snowballs in congress. There’s no Trump tweeting that global warming is a lie invented by the Chinese. The infuriating dissonance between scientific findings and political rhetoric no longer exists. And despite the rising seas and evaporating water, we’re adapting.
By 2065 we’re finally taking action—even if it’s too late.
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