A National Security Perspective on Climate Change

Thomas Schueneman

One key aspect of the discussion this week at the Transatlantic Media Dialog - part of the ongoing effort of climate and energy cooperation began earlier this years as the "Transatlantic Climate Bridge" in which I've had the opportunity to participate - was the issue of perception. Specifically how climate change and climate policy is perceived in the US and EU, as well as across the globe. As I wrote in my post A Sense of Urgency Ahead of COP15 earlier this week from the conference, many (all?) nations look upon the US as "climate laggards," scratching their heads at the antics in Congress, and expressing what at times seems holy indignation over the apparent lack of concern in the US about climate change and sustainability in the general populace.

The National Security Threat from Climate Change

Whether that perception is fully warranted or not, there is a perception in the US that concern over and certainly action taken on climate change rests solely in the purview of those from a particular political party or worldview - democrats and liberal tree-huggers.

Granted, that is a simple-minded approach, and many understand there are much more nuanced outlooks toward climate change across the political and idealogical spectrum, but the perception persists nonetheless - and not without some validity.

David Catarious was one of the speakers at the conference this week. Catarious is a consultant for the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA),and was on the team that helped prepare an assessment report that considered the national security risks of climate change. CNA brought together a Military Advisory Board chaired by former army Chief-of-Staff General Gordon Sullivan and consisting of 11 retired three and four-start admirals and generals. The group comprises a vast body of experience and unique perspective on world affairs. As on example, one board member, Admiral Richard Truly, is a former astronaut (shuttle pilot), Administrator of NASA, and former director of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. These guys aren't out there towing a enviro-liberal agenda.

The report was tasked with assessing the national security threat of projected climate change over the next thirty to forty years, encompassing the time frame for developing new military threats and capabilities.

A threat multiplier

The report concludes that climate change is indeed a threat to America's national security, and key to that finding is the conclusion that global warming is a "threat multiplier" for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and that such volatility will reach even the most stable regions due to the tensions caused by climate change.

The report focuses on four key aspects of climate change risk that will likely lead to global instability and thus threaten national security:

  1. Water
  2. Food security
  3. Health risks from vector borne diseases
  4. Land loss and flooding

One of the first likely examples of climate-based instability is Darfur, where herders and farmers co-existed peeacefully for many years. When the region became plagued with a prolonged draught, herders began moving their livestock on to their productive land, that was rapidly becoming leas productive as a result of the draught. That situation led to ethnic conflict, which led to the genocide that we see today.

Water is one of the largest concerns raised in the report, and the melting glacial ice sheet of the Himalayas, the third largest ice sheet in the world behind Greenland and Antarctica, is one key focal point of that concern. Many of the world's poorest and most volatile regions depend on the Himalayan ice pack for their water, billions of people, including India and Pakistan.

All these risks taken by themselves are serious problems and threats to global stability. Taken in concert they become a profound threat multiplier placing enormous stress on regional, national, and international security and stability.

A military perspective on climate science

In 2006, when the Military Advisory Board first began the process of assessing climate change risk to national security, chairman Sullivan addressed the idea of "100 percent certainty" concerning the science on global warming. From a military perspective, waiting to act until there is 100 percent certainty of a potential threat or outcome is simply, and fatally, to act far too late. Sullivan was aware, especially back in 2006, that the work of the CNA and Military Advisory Board would come under fire (s0 to speak) from ideologues determined to sidestep and marginalize the issue of climate change. When framing the issue from a military perspective - threat assessment and action planning - it becomes more difficult to marginalize the very serious potential threat posed by climate change.

CNA is well aware that the perception of climate change can make a big difference on how people respond to the issue. Speak of dying polar bears and shrinking polar ice caps may for some lead to doubt and derision. Talk of climate change in terms of military threat assessment and national security, and those same folks are all ears.

The military is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It has enormous power to become a change agents, innovators, and first adopters. The CNA and Military Advisory Board sees that as prudent planning for future national security.

Read the full CNA Climate Security report.


Climate Politics & Policy