Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Security Implications of Climate Change

A couple of years ago at a conference in New York, I tried out a theory I had been developing: What if climate change presents a security threat in terms of a confluence of oil dependence, funding to terrorists, displacement of people, and changing water supplies, arable land, and strategic choke points. Certainly, I thought, the combination of poverty, terrorist groups, and the presence of people with new, powerful grievances are an explosive mix. My co-panelists looked at me in bewilderment.

Now it seems the idea is coming into its own, if it's not too late. At a UN meeting I attended yesterday, I asked a UN official whether member states and her colleagues were focusing on the effects of climate change. Her only answer was that everyone was doing their best to make the Copenhagen meeting a success. There didn't seem to be any thought given on preparing for the inevitable impact of climate change. We all have a responsibility to slow climate change but we also have a responsibility to prepare for its impact.

But there are many who understand the gravity of the problem. This afternoon, the Truman National Security Project and Operation Free hosted a conference call with Senator John Kerry on the security implications of climate change. I recommend everyone take a look at Operation Free's excellent website, which contains a ton of information on the possible threats from climate change. The message of the call was that in the past the United States had led by rank on these issues; now, it must lead by example. One officer said that we cannot wait for 100 percent certainty on what climate change means before we act on the threat. The time for action is now.

Senator Kerry's message was that American soldiers in Afghanistan have already reported on the visible threats related to climate change, including desertification and drought in areas that are vulnerable to extremist groups. General Zinni has said that climate change will involve the military and the loss of human life. Some of the points Senator Kerry mentioned were:

- The growing desert in Sudan against the backdrop of the need for firewood, worsening the desert
- The acute need for water in the Middle East where only 2 percent of the world's water is located
- The melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas that provide water to billions of people; the glaciers may be gone in 20 years.
- The rising oceans and their devestation to island nations
- The destruction of fishing grounds
- The predicted displacement of some 100 million people form climate change
- The anticipated increased migration of Mexicans to the United States
- The increased spread of diseases
- The disappearance of forests in Colorado
- The continued money from oil funding petro-states, autocrats, and extremists
- The dependence on (and shifting) strategic choke points like the Malacca Strait

If these threats were not enough, the arguments to take leadership include: the positive economic impact of investing in clean energy; the health benefits of reducing pollution; and the ethical responsibility to future generations.

Photo of Sudanese desert by tomallen.

10 comments:

Steve Dorst said...

Well put. Encouraging to see US Senators paying attention to this. Here's a link to a landmark 2007 report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, issued by CNA. The group put out a related report this year, Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security. I found both helpful.

http://www.cna.org/nationalsecurity/climate/
http://www.cna.org/nationalsecurity/energy/

Kelsey said...

It's the future battles over water that scare the bejesus out of me. It'll make positioning for oil look like a playground fight.

fatem said...

We have gone so far to ignore the warning signs of the climate changing, and now we are dealing with a problem that has ramifications from inequality to drought. It is evident that while we are talking about security in relation to climate change, we cannot and should not ignore matters related to preparedness and mitigation, because some aspects of climate change are already in process. Our collective efforts and understanding of security threats are critical in addressing the problem.

Kevin said...

What is disturbing is that reports for years have indicated the Pentagon has been preparing extensively for the worst effects of climate change; including throughout the years of the Bush Administration. Its disturbing because as the same time the Bush Admin was suppressing public release of science related to climate change and followed the tune of the Clinton Admin in rejecting international measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that the Pentagon is preparing for it as a security threat yet the White House rejects trying to stop it shows an important prioritization of government.

Usilight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Usi Omondiagbe said...

Oil-dependence is a two-dimensional concept. While the developed economies are attempting to diversify to other greener sources of energy, we must also consider the implications this would have on third-world counties whose economies are strongly dependent on oil-exports. It is true that oil exploration contributes to degradation of their environments, but it also provides immense economic gains. For the benefit of these third-world countries, a fairer response to climate change would have to encompass the need to promote environment-friendly oil producing technologies. An example is the abolition of gas flaring. Crude oil exploration cannot be discarded, but only sanitized. This is also a call to exporting countries to address the urgent need to diversify. The world cannot really be dependent on one source of energy forever.

Christopher Smith said...

The United States should become a leader on climate change because it is in their best economic interests. Currently the US is the greatest economic beneficiary to the current global capitalist system. What climate change does, be it sea level rise, increased desertification or intensification of powerful storms is alter that status quo. These potential ecological changes will transform patterns of trade and will reduce the supply of agricultural products. What will happen to large American agro-businesses if the IPCC projections of increasing desertification in the American West, Mexico and Central America come true? Which ports will container ships from Asia dock in when the Greenland ice sheet falls into the Northern Atlantic and raises the sea level by seven meters? These are potentially devastating outcomes for American economic interests and are very plausible scenarios in the 21st century, so in this light the US has no choice but to take the lead in the effort to mitigate cliamte change.

Andy Gaboury said...

I have no doubt that the worst effects of climate change are real possibilities if we maintain our present course. What all these prognostications fail to take into account is the possible technological innovations that will take place in the near future. I agree that the US stands to benefit the most from these but I would caution against looking at trends too far out to discount real world possibilities for change. There were predictions in the past about human population growth overtaking the Earth's ability to provide and the diminishing fossil fuel reserves in the world. I have faith in the human ability to overcome these problems through technology and innovation.

Gabriela Cordeiro Antunes said...

If you had pitched your theory to me even 15 years ago, I would have believed you! Climate change presents a security threat to all of us and the evidence of the impact of climate change has been around for at least 20 years. It's time we pay attention to the ramifications of say, displacement of people, changing water supplies, arable land, confluence of oil dependence, etc. what will the global community do? It's as if the affects of globalization leave some people defending globalization (leveling the "playing field" if you will, for countries like India and China) but what about the impacts Devin Steward lays out here? Globalization has its negative impacts, one of which is climate change. Technology innovation, increased trade and freer markets, and rapid communication and information just doesn't host a worldwide network of buying and selling goods, traveling and learning, it also welcomes environmental degradations, changing oil and water supplies and migration and trafficking of people.

Gabriela Cordeiro Antunes said...

If you had pitched your theory to me even 15 years ago, I would have believed you! Climate change presents a security threat to all of us and the evidence of the impact of climate change has been around for at least 20 years. It's time we pay attention to the ramifications of say, displacement of people, changing water supplies, arable land, confluence of oil dependence, etc. what will the global community do? It's as if the affects of globalization leave some people defending globalization (leveling the "playing field" if you will, for countries like India and China) but what about the impacts Devin Steward lays out here? Globalization has its negative impacts, one of which is climate change. Technology innovation, increased trade and freer markets, and rapid communication and information just doesn't host a worldwide network of buying and selling goods, traveling and learning, it also welcomes environmental degradations, changing oil and water supplies and migration and trafficking of people.