Published: Feb 15, 2011

AMSTERDAM (AP) – Global warming is a looming threat to stability and national security around the world, and militaries should spend some of their ever-expanding budgets on reducing carbon emissions to avoid “climate chaos,” the U.N.’s top climate official said Tuesday.

Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. climate secretariat, warned of the destabilizing effects created by growing water stress, declining crop yields and damage from extreme storms in some of the world’s poorest countries, which could set off mass international migration and regional conflicts.

Figueres said the world’s military budgets grew by 50 percent in the first nine years of this century. Rather than continue that growth in weaponry, she said, the generals should invest in preventative budgets to “avoid the climate chaos that would demand a defense response that makes even today’s spending burden look light.”

She was speaking to Spanish legislators at the national defense college in Madrid. Her remarks were distributed by her office in Bonn, Germany.

Scientists and defense think tanks have warned for years of the heightened military risks created by global warming. In 2007, the U.N. panel of climate scientists said hundreds of millions of Africans will face persistent drought and food insecurity over the next decades that could prompt many to abandon ancestral homes.

Other U.N. academics reported last year that in 2008 alone 20 million people were displaced by sudden climate disasters, at least temporarily, and gradual climate changes over the next 40 years could cause 200 million people – and perhaps up to 1 billion – to migrate.

Figueres said much of the funding that pays for the growth of armies today could help curb carbon emissions that fuel global warming. It also could help poor countries in the most vulnerable and unstable parts of the world to protect themselves from the most devastating effects of climate change.

Militaries should pursue their historic role as technology innovators, she said. “This is an opportunity for the military industry to become the cutting edge of clean technologies that are urgently needed.”

She cited estimates by the U.S. Defense Department that it costs $400 per gallon to supply gasoline to NATO military forces in Afghanistan, and protecting the fuel convoys is a major cause of casualties. Some military bases have begun using solar power to help cut the need to truck in liquid fuels, but the experiments are limited.