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.
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.
It’s a complex task. “One of the major challenges is that models for climate change are not especially precise at the regional or country level, and less precise still for isolating local effects,” says Josh Busby, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Possible tussle over resources in an ice-free Arctic
The Global Trends 2025 report noted that as global temperatures rise, scientists say more of the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer. The National Snow and Ice Data Center predicts that the Arctic will be seasonally ice-free by 2060; other studies put the date at 2013. The security implications of this involve greater access to potentially large energy and mineral resources. “[These] potential riches and advantages are already perceptible to the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway – as evidenced by the emergence of competing territorial claims, such as between Russia and Norway, and Canada and Denmark,” the report says.
Will climate put populations on the move?
Many experts say developing countries, already burdened by poverty, conflicts, and poor governance, are most vulnerable to climate change. And as climate-related stresses drive instability, waves of so-called environmental refugees will cross borders. Retired Air Force Gen. Lawrence Farrell has stated that droughts and floods in Latin America could generate population waves of migration to the United States.
“I agree with the notion shared by The World Bank and some generals,” says Corinne Graff, a fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, “that poor countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change,” and that this concerns the US. She focuses less on the danger of environmental migrants and more on the impact of extreme weather events. She predicts that the US will be asked to help vulnerable nations and regions. “Unfortunately our resources are limited,” she says. “Can we focus on longer–term global threats when we have our own economic problem to worry about?”
“There is no evidence that substantial increases in cross-border migration has occurred during past ecological disasters,” Dr. Raleigh says. “In fact, increases in international migration tend to occur during periods of plenty, as that is a very expensive undertaking for people within the developing world.”
Climate change stands to shift the Pentagon’s mission focus as extreme weather events pummel more and more of the planet’s population centers, requiring massive humanitarian support.
“One main problem is that the US military could quickly become overextended while dealing with large-scale and simultaneous humanitarian disaster,” says University of Texas Professor Busby. “Violent, destabilizing change is part of the picture. But it can be a distraction from the more urgent and likely risks relating to the mass mobilization of military for humanitarian efforts.”
Shifts in ecological systems are most likely to occur in places around the globe that are already structurally and politically weak. Many experts contend that, for several African nations in particular, climate-related stresses are a main contributor to instability, with Somalia and Darfur emerging as cases in point. “We judge that sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be the most vulnerable to climate change because of multiple environmental, economic, political, and social stresses,” Deputy Director Fingar told the Congressional panel last year.