Climate Change as Security Threat Is Nothing New

Two Steps Forward

Climate Change as Security Threat Is Nothing New

A front-page story in Sunday's New York Times proclaimed Climate Change Seen as a Threat to U.S. Security, describing how climate change could lead to "profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics."

The story noted that "Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change."

The Times writers, like so many others, have short memories. This is hardly "the first time" the military has examined this topic.

Nearly six years ago, two scenario planners prepared a report for the Department of Defense titled "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security." The report (download - PDF), by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network, a San Francisco-based think tank, explored how an acceleration of climate change "could potentially de-stabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war." It examined climate-induced constraints such as "food shortages due to decreases in net global agricultural production; decreased availability and quality of fresh water in key regions due to shifted precipitation patterns, causing more frequent floods and droughts; and disrupted access to energy supplies due to extensive sea ice and storminess."

Concluded Schwartz and Randall: "As global and local carry capacities are reduced, tensions could mount around the world, leading to two fundamental strategies: defensive and offensive. Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations, especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbors, may initiate in struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy. Unlikely alliances could be formed as defense priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honor."

Why the seemingly "new" interest by the Pentagon on climate? Perhaps because the price of inaction may be seen as hitting closer to home. It's not just the vulnerable regions on other continents -- sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, among others -- that will suffer the consequences of climate change. It's here on domestic soil. "A growing number of policy makers say that the world’s rising temperatures, surging seas, and melting glaciers are a direct threat to the national interest," reports the Times, adding: "If the United States does not lead the world in reducing fossil-fuel consumption and thus emissions of global warming gases, proponents of this view say, a series of global environmental, social, political and possibly military crises loom that the nation will urgently have to address."

It will be interesting to see whether and how the national security issue changes the tone in Washington as climate debates resume in September. If the national security crowd joins in on the side of prudent proactive measures to address America's greenhouse gas emissions, it could accelerate the speed and scale of carbon regulation. And it will be interesting to see whether climate-action proponents -- in business as well as activist, scientific, and political circles -- latch on to the national-security thread as a potent argument for change.

If there's one thing that can trump the economy, stupid, it's keeping America safe from the rest of the world.

Glacier photo CC-licensed by Flickr user untipografico.