Environmentalism Hawks, Statists, & War Criminals Can Eat

US Experts Say Climate Change is Threat to National Security

By Kylie Schultz – WEDNESDAY APRIL 03, 2013

President Barack Obama meets with national security team in the Situation Room of the White House in 2010.

Air Breathers Huddle

In February, the Partnership for a Secure America published an open letter signed by 38 United States national security experts urging President Obama and Congress to take action on climate change as a threat to national security. The letter states that consequences are undeniable if inaction continues. “The cost of inaction, paid for in lives and valuable US resources, will be staggering,” it states. “Washington must lead on this issue now.”

The letter argues that in order to protect American security domestically and abroad, the United States must find adaptive solutions to aid and stabilize conditions in countries vulnerable to climate change or risk instability or conflict that would be harmful to national security. Without precautionary measures, the letter warns, “climate change impacts abroad could spur mass migrations, influence civil conflict and ultimately lead to a more unpredictable world.”

Although the conversation surrounding climate change in US politics remains contentious, according to national security experts, think tanks and even the military, the stakes are clear. Climate change poses a tangible security risk, and inaction could have severe consequences if not addressed. Many different groups have been urging for action on climate change for decades, but tackling climate change solely as an environmental issue has brought inconclusive results. Can redefining climate change as a national security threat make the difference?

Threats to national security

A pivotal 2007 report written by the Military Advisory Board of CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization, highlights the capacity of climate change to “influence… geo-strategic balances and world events that could likely involve US military forces or otherwise affect US strategic interests anywhere in the world.” Redefining climate change as a security threat goes beyond traditional environmentalist arguments and seeks to analyze climate change as a “threat multiplier,” or a condition that exacerbates or accelerates pre-existing social, political, and economical tensions and conflicts in a region.

“On the simplest level, [climate change] has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those today,” the report states. “The consequences will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope.”

Global warming has already caused climatic changes, some far more rapidly than predicted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reported that January marked 334 consecutive months of above average temperatures, and recent years have seen an increase in extreme weather events, droughts, and floods around the world, and notable sea-level rise. While wealthy nations like the United States have been able to react to these changes, many developing countries have not. Change in weather patterns is causing drought and famine leading to food shortages. Water scarcity and competition for resources are exacerbated by the rural-to-urban migration of populations whose livelihoods have been affected by extreme weather, which also stresses infrastructure and institutional services.

“Economic and environmental conditions in already fragile areas will further erode as food production declines, diseases increase, clean water becomes scarce, and large populations move in search of resources,” states the report. “Weakened and failing governments with an already thin margin for survival, foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism, and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies.”

The report notes that this global political instability could foster extremism, terrorism, or transnational crime which could threaten US security and interests in numerous ways. Instability may stretch domestic humanitarian and aid resources, as well as the US military in struggles to maintain social, political, and economic stability in affected regions. The US may also be pressured to take in migrants seeking to escape environmental degradation, or refugees escaping conflict or whose livelihood has been destroyed by ecological devastation. Such possibilities put an onus on the US to assess how capably it could address food security, internal migration, extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and water scarcity at home, while also addressing them abroad.

For now, these threats and conflicts remain unaddressed because the United States is so far removed from directly experiencing many of these changes. But some American analysts say that as these upheavals and disruptions continue to unfold around the world, their consequences might soon be felt closer to home.

Climate change and the Arab Spring

In February, the Center for Climate and Security with the Center for American Progress, released The Arab Spring and Climate Change: A Climate and Security Correlations Series. A series of essays within the book discuss how climate change was a contributing factor to the Arab Spring.

In Syria, for example, the authors point out that a prolonged drought, compounded by poor governance and resource mismanagement by the Assad regime, forced nearly 800,000 people to migrate due to environmental degradation which destroyed their farms and livelihoods. The rural-to-urban migration added additional stress on Syria’s already depressed cities, worsening crumbling infrastructure, access to water and employment opportunities. This combination of social, economic, and environmental stresses, exacerbated by climatic change, “eroded the social contract between citizen and government in the country, strengthened the case for the opposition movement, and irreparably damaged the legitimacy of the Assad regime.”

The essay points out that although it is important to re-establish political and economic stability in Syria (which US experts consider the lack of to be a threat to national security), any stable solution will require addressing the human security issues which have been accelerated by climate change. Management of vital resources such as food, water, and arable land are just as important to maintaining stability as a stable government.

“If mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects is not integrated into the policies and plans of new and existing governments, and if the international community does not assist in the endeavor, the social contract between citizen and government in the Arab world will likely not improve and the stability and prosperity of the region may erode,” concludes the essay.

While the armed forces have been effective in mitigating certain negative impacts of climate, others hope that addressing instability through peaceful methods which focus on social and political ills rather than military intervention might help the US foster positive global relationships and re-establish trust.

A new type of battle: leading the fight against climate change

Activist groups hope that labelling climate change as a national security issue will give it a higher priority in the government, which has been slow to address climate change and reduce emissions. While the CNA report and reports from the Department of Defense and State Department argue that greenhouse gas and carbon emissions and energy use must be regulated to ensure domestic security, it seems effective action from the US will require a much more cooperative approach.

Foremost, the US needs to be welcome to cooperative measures in order to address climate change and its consequences. PSA Advisory Board co-chair and former Rep. Lee Hamilton states that, “The US must work to forge a consensus, both domestically and internationally, with leaders from around the world on both parties, on a unified strategy that can succeed in countering this threat to international security.”

Some initial steps have been taken. The US Department of Defense included addressing climate change in its national defense strategy in 2010, and US military forces are beginning to reach out to other armed forces to engage dialogue surrounding future security issues. But more must be done if the US really wants to protect its national security and promote international stability.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, testified before the US Congress Committee on Government Reform that the US must be willing to lead in international climate change policies. “The perception that the US bears a disproportional responsibility for impacts and is unwilling to join multilateral efforts to reduce emissions affects our international reputation and standing,” he said. “These growing international disagreements can lead to worsening relations with long-time allies over environmental policies as well as new disputes with developing countries over how to address both the causes and effects of climate change. There is also a risk that these disagreements will spill over into economic policy, trade agreements, and security arrangements.”

History shows reluctance from the US to commit to international climate agreements, and mitigating climate change and emissions at home continues to be a contentious proposition. Reaching true US led international stability will first require domestic successes, but also must account for wider geopolitical needs to promote fair access to resources and services. While it is clear that the United States has much at risk as global climate change continues to alter social, political and economic conditions around the world, there seems to be very little urgency to address it either as an environmental issue or one of national security.

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