In Focus: Climate change affects national security

Climate change and its consequences may be controversial for some, but it is not a problem to be ignored according to our nation’s senior military planners. As Rear Admiral (ret.) David W. Titley, former oceanographer of the Navy, stated in 2013 testimony to Congress, the scientific basis for human-induced climate change is not controversial. It has been known for over a century that increasing the concentrations of heat-absorbing greenhouse gases by the amounts we are doing today would change the climate of the planet. As Admiral Titley puts it, “I tell people, this is cutting-edge 19th cCentury science that we’re now refining.”

So how is climate change a national security issue, and why did Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, recently call climate change the greatest long-term security threat in the Pacific region? Simple. Its environmental consequences are a significant threat multiplier. It could, by itself, be a cause for future conflict. It will affect military operations as well as its theaters of operations. And it poses significant risks and costs to military and civilian infrastructure, especially those facilities located on the coastline.

Let’s consider just two of these impacts:

Climate change as a threat multiplier

The countries and regions posing the greatest security threats to the United States are among those most susceptible to the adverse and destabilizing effects of climate change. Many of these countries are already unstable and have little economic or social capital for coping with additional disruptions. Whether in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, or North Korea, we are already seeing how extreme weather events — such as droughts and flooding — and the food shortages that accompany them, can destabilize governments and lead to conflict. For example, one trigger of the chaos in Syria has been the multi-year drought the country has experienced since 2006 and the Assad Regime’s ineptitude in dealing with it. http://tinyurl.com/kxebcq7

Sea level rise, increasing desertification, and the population dislocations and mass migrations they will force, also pose long-term security threats to the many marginally functioning governments throughout the less-developed world. Bangladesh, a country of over 160 million, is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. It will multiply the scope of the damage to agriculture and infrastructure that the country already suffers from the storms that blow in from the Bay of Bengal. At some point, parts of the country will become functionally uninhabitable, and the displaced population may see India as its only refuge. They will not be welcome there.

Climate change as a direct source of conflict

Throughout human history, access to or control of critical resources has been a principal cause of war. And in many of the regions that most concern US military planners, water is that critical resource. The Tigris and Euphrates river system provides a good example of how access to water could spawn regional conflict. The sources of both rivers lie in the mountains of eastern Turkey. They then flow through Syria and Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Both rivers are vital sources of water for all three countries, and the flows in both rivers are expected to decrease as the climate in this region warms and becomes drier. Any attempt by Turkey or Syria to control flows or capture additional water would be seen as a direct threat to countries downstream. In fact, it already has. http://tinyurl.com/mz6abov

In 2007 the Center for Naval Analysis (CAN) requested its Military Advisory Board (MAB), a group of 16 retired flag-level officers, to examine the national security implications of climate change. The subject has since been revisited by the MAB in a report, National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change, published in May of this year. http://tinyurl.com/lreswx8. The officers who make up the CAN’s Military Advisory Board are hardly naïve. They include individuals such as General James Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps; General Gordon Sullivan, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff; Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman, former director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program; and others of this caliber. And after close examination of the science, they conclude that, “The national security risks of projected climate change are as serious as any challenges we have faced.” They also state that they are “dismayed that discussions of climate change have become so polarizing and have receded from the arena of informed public discourse and debate.”

The MAB concludes its assessment of the risks of climate change to America’s national security with a set of specific recommendations for addressing them. The MAB concludes its assessment with this statement: “Coordinated and well-executed actions to limit heat-trapping gases and increase resilience to help prevent and protect against the worst projected climate change impacts are required — now.”