Center for Strategic Decision Research


Indirect Threats to Global Security:
Climate Change and Flu Pandemics

Mr. Satish Chandra
Deputy National Security Advisor of India


Indirect threats to global security arise not from issues customarily associated with security, such as war, regional conflict, civil strife, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and terrorism, but from issues traditionally not considered to significantly impact security, such as climate change, disease, poverty, and economic inequities. The latter threats could perhaps more appropriately be termed nonconventional rather than indirect, since failure to address them can have as disastrous an impact on our existence and well-being as the failure to address more conventional threats. 

I will highlight the grave dangers posed by two of these threats, climate change and flu pandemics, and outline briefly what we can and need to do. Because both of these dangers are able to inflict on us, during the next few years, devastation of an order hitherto never visited on mankind, I would like to paint two entirely plausible hypothetical scenarios to bring home the gravity of the situation. 

It is 2015. Despite much debate and warning, the world has done little to address the buildup of greenhouse gases and the consequent acceleration of global warming, which is accompanied by increasingly unpredictable world weather patterns. Extreme heat, storms, and droughts have created havoc for farmers. Mega-droughts are affecting major granaries. The world’s agricultural production and freshwater resources are seriously stretched, reducing the planet’s carrying capacity. Deaths from famine and drought are in the hundreds of thousands. Violent and frequent storms are lashing Western Europe, leading to the abandonment of low-lying cities such as The Hague. Rising sea levels have made countries such as Bangladesh nearly uninhabitable, resulting in mass migration. 

This scenario, as frightening as it is, pales in comparison with what could overtake us by 2007 if the highly pathogenic form of bird flu “H5N1” becomes transmittable human to human; all it would take for this to happen is a simple gene shift in the bird flu virus, which could happen any day. In a globalized world linked by rapid air travel, the disease would spread like a raging forest fire. If it did, it would overwhelm our public health system, cripple our economies, and wipe out a billion people within the space of a few months—a 60 percent mortality rate is estimated. 

Both of these scenarios may seem alarmist, but they are within the realm of possibility. We are, however, in a position to put in place structures and programs to mitigate and possibly even prevent such disasters. But a no-regrets strategy demands that this be done before it is too late. 

As we examine what we need to do, we must take an in-depth look at the nature and extent of the threat of climate change and flu pandemics. 


It is well established that the global warming we are experiencing today is the direct result of the increased concentration of greenhouse gases caused by human activity. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that since 1750 A.D. atmospheric concentrations of methane are up by 151 percent and carbon dioxide concentrations are up by 31 percent. Current levels of both of these concentrations (viz. 375 ppm [parts per million] and 1,760 ppb [parts per billion] have not been exceeded during the past 420,000 years. In addition, the current rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 concentrations viz. 1.5 ppm per year over the past two decades is unprecedented at least over the last 20,000 years. Seventy-five percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions during the last two decades are due to fossil fuel burning and the remainder mainly to land use changes, particularly deforestation. 

The fact of global warming is self-evident. We can all feel it. Maximum summer temperatures in Europe in 2003 were unlike anything seen in the preceding 100 years—6 degrees C higher than the 1961–91 average and 2 degrees C hotter than the average summer temperatures during the entire twentieth century. In North India, March 2004 temperatures were 5 to 7 degrees C above normal. 

According to the IPCC, the global average surface temperature increased by about 0.6 degrees C during the twentieth century, and the 1990s were the warmest decade since the beginning of record keeping in 1861. As a result of global warming, snow cover since the late 1960s has declined by 10 percent. The thickness of Arctic Sea ice during the late-summer/autumn declined by 40 percent in recent decades. A widespread retreat of mountain glaciers in nonpolar regions has also occurred. The global average sea level has increased between 0.1 and 0.2 meters during the twentieth century. El Nino events, which bring severe droughts in some areas and floods in others, have become more frequent and more intense during the last 30 years compared to the previous 100 years. Coral reef bleaching, which leads to major loss of biodiversity in coastal areas, has become more frequent. 

Some scientists believe that the extreme weather phenomenon witnessed in the 1990s is an indication that the 0.6 degree C warming during the twentieth century is part of an established upward and accelerating global warming spiral. The declining snow cover; the increased precipitation, which in turn increases water vapor; and the fact that yesterday’s CO2 emissions continue to impact the future are all contributors to increasing warming. Indeed, even if we were able to freeze carbon dioxide concentrations at the current level of 375 ppm, global temperatures would rise another 1 degree C on top of what we have already experienced. Should this happen, according to a special report on climate change in the February 2004 edition of the Ecologist, glaciers and sea ice would in all probability vanish and the number of extreme events such as floods, landslides, heat waves, and violent storms would increase, inevitably having catastrophic effects on global food supplies. The report further postulates that if carbon dioxide emissions are curbed so that carbon dioxide concentrations increase only to 550 ppm, or roughly double pre-industrial levels, global temperatures would rise 2 degrees C over the next 100 years. 

Study Projections

In this scenario, our current climate system would probably still be able to cope “without jumping unexpectedly to a very different and hard to predict state.” It would nevertheless result in a sea level increase of a foot or more and even stronger climate events, including storms, sea surges, torrential rains, and droughts. If, however, energy use continues to grow at current rates, a four-fold increase in greenhouse gases compared to pre-industrial times could result. This in turn could result in an 8 degree C rise in global average temperatures, which would produce sea levels 12 meters higher than those existing today as well as the complete elimination of permanent polar ice zones. In this eventuality, we would lose our major capital cities and much of our best farmland, and be subjected to violent weather conditions that together would make survival virtually impossible. After looking into a number of global warming scenarios, the IPCC has projected global average surface temperature increases between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees C between 1990 and 2100. The Ecologist’s report on climate change contends that these projections are perhaps far too optimistic. 

Another study on this topic, “Abrupt Climate Change,” was commissioned by Andrew Marshall for the U.S. government and developed in October 2003 by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall. The study projects a sharp acceleration in atmospheric warming in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Average temperatures worldwide are predicted to increase by 0.5 degrees F and in the harder-hit regions by as much as 2 degrees F. Most of North America, Europe, and parts of South America should experience 30 percent more days with temperatures over 90 degrees F than a century ago. Weather patterns should become much more erratic—more floods in mountainous regions and prolonged droughts in grain-producing and coastal agricultural areas. Climate shifts will become a local economic nuisance as storms, droughts, and hot spells impact agriculture and other climate-dependent activities. More severe storms and typhoons should bring about higher storm surges and floods, making, in 2007, a few coastal cities such as The Hague uninhabitable. Climate shifts will also accelerate glacier melting, cause the disappearance of floating ice in the North Polar seas, make sea levels rise, and cause an increase in intensity of oceanic waves, which will damage coastal cities. As a result of the freshening of North Atlantic waters from higher precipitation and melting polar sea ice, the thermohaline circulation system will begin to collapse in 2010. This collapse will disrupt the temperate climate of Europe, which occurs because of the warm flows of the Gulf Stream. 

With the collapse of the thermohaline circulation system, the report projects that Europe will be hardest hit by climate change in the period 2010–2020. Average annual temperatures will drop 6 degrees F, making northwest Europe colder and in fact more like Siberia. Reduced precipitation will cause soil loss contributing to food shortages. Europe will struggle to stem emigration from Scandinavian and northern European nations. Colder, windier, and drier weather will make growing seasons shorter and less productive throughout the northeastern United States, and longer and drier in the southwest. Coastal areas will remain at risk as ocean levels continue to rise. China will be hit hard by decreased monsoon reliability. Longer, colder winters and hotter summers with reduced precipitation will stress already tight energy and water supplies, and widespread famine will cause chaos and internal conflict. Bangladesh will become nearly uninhabitable due to persistent typhoons and rising sea levels. The report projects that as a result of these climatic changes, there will be a significant drop in the planet’s ability to carry the existing population, and future wars will be fought over survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honor. Deaths from war and famine will run into the millions. 

While the extreme view projected in this study is as yet a minority one, it is serious enough that the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved $60 million for further research and Hollywood produced the climate-catastrophe film “The Day After Tomorrow.” Whether or not the thermohaline circulation system actually collapses in the short time projected in the study, climate change, as reportedly pointed out by Sir David King, the British government’s chief scientist, is “the most severe problem we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism.” 

Even if a thermohaline circulation system collapse does not occur in the next decade or two, the consequences of global warming will be sufficiently serious in our lifetime. Two top U.S. government experts—Dr. Thomas Karl of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research—published a paper in the December 5, 2003, issue of Science, warning that on our current course, the likely result is more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation, events-related impacts such as wild fires, heat stress, vegetation changes, and sea level rise. In addition, a leading re-insurer, Swiss Re, released a report predicting that the financial costs of global warming will double every decade, rising to $150 billion a year over the next 10 years. A major study published in Nature magazine projects that in the next 50 years, climate change will cause the extinction of a quarter of land animals and plants, more than a million species, and much of that loss—more than one-tenth of all plants and animals—is irreversible because of the extra greenhouse gases already discharged into the atmosphere. A recent study undertaken by WHO (World Health Organization) also found that climate change is responsible for 2.4 percent of diarrhea cases worldwide and for 2 percent of all cases of malaria. The study estimates that in the year 2000, 150,000 deaths were caused by climate change. 

Economic Impact

The economic impact of climate change also will be enormous. Physical infrastructure—energy transmission systems, buildings, urban infrastructure, and so on—are directly affected by extreme events such as floods and cyclones. Extreme weather episodes also lead to migrations; urban flooding has already become a major issue on most continents. Agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and tourism, on which the livelihood of billions of people depends, are all highly sensitive to climate change. In addition, the insurance and finance services sector is adversely affected by weather-related events perceived to be linked to climate change. 

The Need to Use New Technologies

The extent of climate change is directly linked to the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations, which in turn are determined by trends in carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning. Lowering global carbon emissions would require major changes in existing patterns of energy resource development, but right now we have the technological means to fix the problem. However, we need to utilize the full potential of a host of new technologies, such as wind turbines, highly efficient hybrid electric cars, fuel cell technologies, solar energy, and so on, together with those designed to eliminate industrial-byproduct gases. Greater use of natural gas, nuclear energy, and hydropower would further reduce the utilization of fossil fuels. Moreover, there are innumerable low-cost opportunities that need to be seized to promote efficient energy use in buildings, transportation, and manufacturing. There are also enormous opportunities to reduce the extent of forest biomass burning and to cut down methane and nitrous oxide emissions, which also contribute to global warming. In addition we can build carbon “sinks” through judicious reforestation programs. The IPCC has determined that it is entirely possible through such actions to reduce global emissions well below 2000 levels between 2010 and 2020, and much of the reduction could be achieved in a cost-effective manner.

The Need for International Agreements

While the entire planet is vulnerable to climate shifts, the capacity to adapt to and meet the challenges of climate change varies vastly from region to region. Simply put, developing countries and poorer populations have limited capacity to adjust to climate change. According to the Third Assessment Report (TAR), the adaptive capacity of human systems is high in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America but low in Asia, Latin America, and the polar regions. Small island states are considered to be the most vulnerable to climate change. 

With this in mind, the international community developed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the 1992 Earth Summit and, subsequently, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. These two guidelines show the way for addressing the dangers of climate change based on the following principles: 

  • Following the “precautionary principle,” immediate efforts must be made to halt, if not reverse, global warming. 
  • All countries should take action to respond to climate change in accordance with their differing responsibilities and capabilities. The Kyoto Protocol imposed binding commitments only on developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and it may be that the main responsibility for global warming rests with the industrialized countries whose historic and current per-capita emission levels are at unsustainable levels and far in excess of those of developing countries. Climate change is being caused not by greenhouse gas emissions but by excessive levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the responsibility for which lies with industrialized countries. For instance, while India’s current per-capita carbon emissions are 0.3 tons, far below the global average of 1.1 tons, those of the U.S. are of the order of about 5 tons. Moreover, developing countries lack the financial and technological capability to address global warming. Any binding commitments on developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would thus not only be inequitable but detrimental to the attainment of their primary goals, namely, economic and social development. 
  • The industrialized nations with the greatest historical contribution to climate change must take the lead in addressing the problem. At Kyoto they undertook to reduce, by 2012, their greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels. In order to lessen the difficulty of meeting those targets, several measures were agreed to, including “flexibility mechanisms,” that allow the trading of emission permits, the use of forests and other carbon sinks, and the earning of credits through use of a clean development mechanism (CDM) or joint implementation project. 
  • Developing countries must commit themselves to monitor and address their carbon monoxide emissions and to enter into contractual and conditional commitments to implement specific mitigation measures provided the full incremental costs are met by developed countries. 

Regrettably the Kyoto Protocol has been stymied because both the U.S. and Russia have refused to ratify it; the protocol can become an instrument of international law only if ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of the emissions of the industrialized world. Since the U.S. and Russia together account for 53 percent of the industrialized world’s emissions, the Kyoto Protocol cannot be entered into force. It is also disturbing that global carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption have gone up by 9.1 percent between 1990 and 2000 and those of the U.S. from 22 to 24 percent of global carbon emissions. And instead of our working toward the Kyoto emission target of reducing industrialized countries’ total greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels, actual carbon emissions are down only by 1.7 percent. The reductions that have been achieved are largely due to a 30 percent drop in Russia’s carbon emissions and a 1.4 percent decline in EU carbon emission. The Russian decline may be largely attributed to the slowdown in its economy and to the closing of inefficient industries.  

Other major industrialized countries, including Japan, Canada, and Australia, have seen massive increases in carbon emissions in the period 1990–2000. However, European countries in general and the U.K. and Germany in particular have performed fairly well in curbing carbon emissions through curtailing coal utilization and promoting more efficient and eco-friendly technologies. Many developing countries, notably Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines, have also taken some commendable steps to reduce carbon emissions growth. However, while individual countries can and must do whatever is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, progress in the matter can most effectively be undertaken only within the framework of an international and legally binding agreement that clearly sets out the obligations and responsibilities of the parties concerned as to how clearly defined benchmarks and objectives can be achieved. In this context, there can be no substitute for the Kyoto Protocol; it is in our common interest that the protocol be ratified by all concerned. Failure to do so will condemn us to the perils of climate change. 

All of us need to recognize that global warming is like cancer: Difficult to detect in the early stages and difficult to cure if detected late. Regrettably, we have detected global warming late, and there are some who feel that its consequences are reaching the point of irreversibility. Even if we were to cut back emissions to the levels suggested in the Kyoto Protocol, we would merely be scratching the surface of the problem. The stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm would require annual carbon emissions to drop to less than 21 billion tons over the next century. This would entail a cut of around 80 percent in global carbon emissions from present levels—much larger than what is being contemplated in the Kyoto Protocol. However, in the absence of anything better, we need to follow the Kyoto Protocol since it constitutes the first step in seriously addressing climate change in a truly global manner—the only way an issue of this nature can be addressed. Pending the protocol’s ratification, the international community must push ahead with the implementation of the clean development mechanism, which should be incorporated into an international agreement because it will facilitate investment and technology flows to developing countries in exchange for carbon credits. 

Recognizing Nuclear Power As Clean Energy

India believes that nuclear power can be an important component of clean energy technology usage. While every mention of India’s nuclear program is immediately linked to our nuclear weapons development, our nuclear program has always been primarily anchored in developing applications for nuclear energy. Today nuclear power accounts for only about 3 percent of our total power production, but we have an ambitious growth program. 

To put the scale of the problem in perspective, if India needed to achieve per-capita energy consumption commensurate with even the lower end of the present standard of living in developed countries, it would need to increase its electricity generation capacity from today’s level of around 100,000 Mwe to around 1.5 million Mwe, i.e., to 15 times present capacity. If we did so using fossil fuels alone, this would mean additional carbon monoxide emissions equal to roughly the entire existing global level. 

Therefore every one of India’s efforts to increase the proportion of nuclear energy in our total energy output should be supported wholeheartedly. Instead, the pretext of nonproliferation concerns is frequently used to deny cooperation with India in this area. The irony is that India, which has an impeccable record on nonproliferation, is denied access to technology and investment that is important for its development in a manner that protects the global climate while clandestine transfers of nuclear, missile, and dual-use technologies escape unpunished even when exposed. This serves neither nonproliferation goals nor the objectives of environment-friendly development. Nuclear power must be recognized as clean energy and should be brought within the purview of CDM. 


If the possibility of the collapse of the thermohaline circulation system is alarming, the possibility of a human-to-human transmittable bird flu pandemic is a nightmare. What makes it so frightening is the fact that it could happen at any time and that we are ill prepared to face it. At current mortality rates, it could result in the sudden death of 15 to 20 percent of mankind. 

The most severe health crisis in recent years in terms of numbers of deaths was the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic, which in the space of one year caused an estimated 40 million deaths worldwide. Begun in Kansas in March 1918, the epidemic spread to Europe and then to India, Australia, and New Zealand. The virulence and mortality rate of the first wave of the disease, in the spring of 1918, was only slightly above normal levels but the second wave, which began in the fall of 1918, was extraordinarily deadly, with mortality rates of 5 to 20 percent above normal levels. It is believed that the fall strain of the virus came about through genetic mutation and that the genetic structure of the virus was a form of a swine and avian influenza strain. 

Since 1918, the world has seen several influenza outbreaks, most notably the 1957 Asian flu outbreak and the 1968 Hong Kong flu outbreak, each of which killed a million people. While WHO now has an Influenza Surveillance Program in place as well as an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan, we still need to examine the possibility of the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu becoming transmittable from human to human, the outcome of such a situation, and what must be done to address the possibility. 

Since the end of 2003, outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza, or bird flu, have occurred in eight Asian countries, resulting in the loss of 100 million poultry birds. The implications for human health are worrisome because of the extreme pathogenic nature of this virus—it has the capability to infect humans and cause severe illness, with mortality rates of 60 to 70 percent. It has already infected humans three times in the recent past: In 1997 and 2003 in Hong Kong and in 2004 in Vietnam and Thailand. So far the disease has been transmitted only to humans who came in contact with dead or diseased poultry—it has not yet mutated to being capable of human-to-human transmission. 

The Likelihood of a Pandemic

Since the H5N1 strain has not been eliminated from its avian hosts, it is obviously endemic. The risk, therefore, that the virus could take on a new form that would make it capable of human-to- human transmission is considerable, especially because mass vaccinations of chickens, aimed at mitigating the disaster facing poultry farmers, has allowed the virus to continue to circulate among the vaccinated birds. It can thus linger indefinitely in poultry, making the gene mutation required to make it transmittable from human to human an even greater possibility. 

It could be said that there are three prerequisites for the start of a pandemic: 1) a new virus must emerge against which the general population has little or no immunity; 2) the new virus must be able to replicate in humans and cause disease; and 3) the new virus must be efficiently transmitted from one human to another. Dr. Anarji Asamoa Baah, Assistant Director General, Communicable Diseases, WHO, asserts that, regarding H5N1, the first two prerequisites have already been met, and it is known that the virus can become more transmittable via two mechanisms, “adaptive mutation” and “genetic re-assortment.” Dr. Baah has further contended that re-assortment of H5N1 with a human influenza virus can take place in humans without prior adaptation in other species such as swine. 

It is clear, therefore, that 1) the H5N1 virus will continue to circulate for a very long time in poultry birds; 2) the threat to public health will be there as long as the virus continues to circulate in poultry birds; 3) should the virus become transmittable from human to human, the consequences for human health worldwide, in the words of Dr. Baah, “could be devastating;” and 4) the world needs to be prepared to respond to the next influenza outbreak. During an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness meeting in Geneva in March 2004, the head of the World Health Organization warned, “We know another pandemic is inevitable. It is coming…we also know that we are unlikely to have enough drugs, vaccines, healthcare workers, and hospital capacity to cope in an ideal way.” 

On the basis of an epidemiological model project, WHO scientists predict that an influenza pandemic will result in 57 million to 132 million outpatient hospital visits, 1 million to 2.3 million admissions, and between 280,000 and 650,000 deaths in less than two years. The impact on poor nations would be much greater. But I submit that these projections are gross underestimates given the fact that the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic, with mortality rates of a maximum of 20 percent above normal level, caused as many as 40 million deaths. With mortality rates in excess of 60 percent, the H5N1 virus is bound to be much more deadly, particularly because in today’s world of air connectivity, the spread of H5N1 would be much more rapid than that of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Indeed, the death toll could run into hundreds of millions. 

Measures to Detect and Fight a Bird Flu Outbreak

In order to prepare ourselves for the coming H5N1 flu pandemic, we need to consider the following measures:

  • Upgrade surveillance systems to ensure real-time detection of avian flu when it infects both poultry and humans. The surveillance challenge, so well put by Aileen Plant of Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, is to “identify the first case, the first time humans are infected, the first time the disease goes from human to human, and then to identify when it starts to spread quickly.” For surveillance to work, it must be transparent and based on regional and international cooperation. 
  • Once the avian flu is detected in poultry, rather than going in for poultry vaccination, it would be more prudent to engage in culling. 
  • On the detection of bird flu in humans, quarantines and travel advisories should be rigorously imposed with a view to containing the disease. 
  • As the pandemic would quickly exhaust healthcare system resources, plans need to be activated to develop back-up facilities and staff. 
  • Massive investment is required in influenza vaccine programs so that vaccines could be developed in shorter timeframes and greater quantities. 
  • Vaccine production capacity currently ranges from about 260 million to 280 million doses. In the event of a major pandemic, we would need at least a billion doses. We need, therefore, to augment our vaccine manufacturing capacities. And since it takes between four and six months to develop a vaccine once a virus has been isolated, we will not have much time to effectively cope with a deadly pandemic. Accordingly, we need to devise ways and means to reduce the timeframe for developing a vaccine. 
  • Stocks of anti-viral influenza drugs need to be built up. 



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