Climate may heat crises, too, military analysts say
Competition for resources, ‘climate migrants,’ failed states are among top concerns.
Top US defense officials are envisioning ways that American military personnel, equipment, and installations might be affected by extreme weather events, rising ocean temperatures, shifts in rainfall patterns, and other natural resource stresses projected to accompany global climate change – stresses that may exacerbate existing security threats and breed new ones.Skip to next paragraph
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Experts disagree on the scale and timing of threats.
But in Washington, climate-related problems are being seen as a hard security issue. The US intelligence community, for example, recently wrote a National Intelligence Assessment on the national security impacts of global climate change through 2030. Another presidential report prepared by the US intelligence community, Global Trends 2025, has climate change as a top talking point.
The new director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, recently told a committee of senators that the intelligence community “judges that global climate change will have important and extensive implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years.”
Academics are diving into the topic, too. In December, the Pentagon unveiled a controversial program to fund social science research. The $50 million research fund, known as Minerva, is funding work at the University of Texas at Austin to study the effects of climate change on the security of African nations.
“The topic is clearly on the radar of senior members of the intelligence community,” says Sherri Goodman, general counsel for CNA, a Pentagon-funded think tank. “There have been a number of public statements from the new leadership, as well as the president’s own remarks, that reference the security consequences of climate change,” she adds.
Sharon Burke, vice president for Natural Security at the Center for a New American Security, says the military is paying increasing attention to the problem. “But the approach is not yet systematic or pervasive, and there are many skeptics,” she says.
Ms. Burke says that, thanks to the 2008 defense authorization act, there is a “growing infrastructure of individuals” within the military dedicated to studying climate-change concerns.
She notes that the US Navy, which must address strategic changes in the Arctic, is “forward leaning in exploring the implications of climate change.” Still, she notes a chain-of-command need for clarity:
“I’m getting questions from civilians and military members at the Department of Defense about what their guidance is,” she says. “They’re looking to the White House to formally define climate change as a security issue.”
A 2007 report by 11 retired US generals and admirals, writing under the auspices of CNA, says that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world … and this presents significant national security challenges for the United States.” Here are a few of the main issues:
Storm surge threats
Some worry that rising sea levels and major weather events like hurricane Katrina could flood parts of low-lying cities, including New York. Military and nuclear installations could also be in danger of inundation. In congressional testimony last year, Tom Fingar, then deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis, said that 63 US coastal military installations and a number of nuclear reactors are in danger of being flooded by storm surges. Now the Pentagon’s environmental science and research program, known as SERDEP, is developing a computer model designed to predict such events.