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Why Climate Change is a Matter of National Security

This is a cross-post which first appeared on the Consumer Energy Report
by Andrew Holland

I may bring down the wrath of the internet with this essay – I know from experience that talking climate change in a public forum draws out all the trolls. A changing climate, however, is important enough that our national security planners are studying it closely. The Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, and the Department of Homeland Security are closely studying the effects of climate change, particularly how it will impact our security.

A Changing Climate

First, I will try to pre-empt some criticism from the anti-science crowd by saying that we simply cannot know the future. The climate is notoriously difficult to predict, and models are imperfect. But – climate change is not a matter of ‘belief’ – it is a matter of fact. The fact is that the earth is warming, and has been for at least a century. And, that warming is accelerating: the warmest decade on record was the 2000s, with each of the three decades previous to that warmer than the decade before. Further – it is unequivocal that this warming is being driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. I am not a scientist, so I will leave the rest of the explanation to NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who discussed the science of climate change in a recent TED speech.

I will not get into arguments about the science of climate change: I will leave that to the scientists. But, we should all agree that the science is conclusive enough that we cannot simply ignore it – or claim that it’s some sort of UN plot.

Pre-Emptive Doctrines

When national security planners look to prevent future threats to our security, they know that you cannot act with certainty: once you have 100% certainty, it is too late to act.

We have enough knowledge to know that climate change is potentially dangerous. It was Vice President Dick Cheney who first enunciated the “1% doctrine” in which the War on Terror empowered the U.S. government to say “Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty.” What we have now is at least 95% certainty from the science community, and yet you have many American politicians (including more than a few who supported Cheney’s pre-emptive doctrines) saying we cannot act because we do not have certainty.

International Threat

Once we move beyond the scientific debate, we do see that there are real threats to international stability and security from a changing climate. For example, changing patterns of glacier formation, precipitation, and snowmelt in the Himalayas will alter the river flows of the great East Asian rivers, upon which about 20% of humanity depends. Or, changing patterns of drought in Africa could further exacerbate problems of food security for millions in dry regions like the Sahel, pushing migrants across contested borders.

Finally, in a development that threatens the very existence of a nation, Kiribati, the country’s Cabinet endorsed a plan to buy nearly 6,000 acres of Fiji in order to move Kiribati’s population if a rising sea swallows their islands. In each of these cases, climate change acts as a threat multiplier: it’s not just that the effects of climate change (sea level rise, melting glaciers, drought, etc) that will be dangerous, but it’s how people living in the affected regions react. It is not difficult to foresee conflict emerging from any of these possibilities.

Domestic Threat

However, Americans and Europeans cannot afford to simply think that the dangers of climate change lie in the developing world. Our domestic security is threatened by the effects of climate change. The recent outbreak of tornadoes across the Midwest should remind us: living in a wealthy nation does not afford us protection from violent and unpredictable weather. Examples of threats include how rising sea levels threaten low-lying infrastructure across the Gulf Coast. Consistent droughts in the Southwest threaten the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers in the Southwest. Finally, in an area in which the science is most definitely not settled, more frequent or more dangerous hurricanes or tornadoes threaten vulnerable communities across the country. It would be a stretch to say that any of these examples threaten the narrowly defined ‘national security’ of the United States: we’re not likely to see civil conflict or state collapse here at home from violent weather. But, it should be clear that these could affect the security of individuals and communities across the country.

Forecasting Rapid Changes

One of the big problems about predicting the security affects of climate change is in the art of prediction itself. The IPCC consensus warming of an average one or two degrees Celsius increase over a multi-decade period is not that worrying. Instead, the possibility of rapid or dangerous non-linear changes in climate could cause widespread damage. These abrupt changes could manifest themselves in sudden changes in the Indian Ocean monsoon seasons – harming water supplies across all of India and Pakistan. Or a rapid collapse in tropical forest, due to altered moisture levels in the air. These changes are so dangerous simply because they are so difficult to predict. And – they are the most threatening to national security planners because rapid changes like this will inevitably cause reactions by people that could cause conflict.

Finally – to end on a pessimistic note – it is extremely unlikely that we can simply change our energy policy today and all will be fixed. There is a temptation to say “if only the Senate could pass the Graham-Kerry-Lieberman climate policy act then all would be solved.” Unfortunately, the climate system is largely ‘locked-in’ for the next 30-40 years. As Robert Rapier recently posted, shutting down all coal plants today would only lead to .2 degrees less warming. That means that addressing climate change is not simply a matter of deploying new energy sources or buying more efficient light bulbs. It will require a ‘whole of government’ focus that directs actions towards mitigating emissions, building resilience into domestic infrastructure, financing adaptation, and planning to respond to disasters. This is not as simple as a one-step process; it will require decades of concerted national and international action. But – we have to start somewhere.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Tol says:

    You may want to read up a bit. Here’s a start:

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