Climate Insecurity: Global Warming and National Security

(Initially published in the Baltimore Sun, September 10, 2009)

The debate over climate change legislation is beginning to heat up. The American Clean Energy and Security Act was passed by the House and is now before the Senate. The debate on this issue typically takes the form of environmental concerns about global warming pitted against economic fears about the cost of reducing greenhouse gases. It is often framed in left-right terms. But as Americans think about whether to support this legislation, they should ponder the national security implications of climate change.

The recognition that global warming will increase the threats to our national security and place ever greater demands on our military is not new. The Bush administration acknowledged the issue in the 2006 National Security Strategy. A national security think tank comprising retired military officers, including Marine General Anthony Zinni, issued a report on the subject in 2007, identifying the various ways in which man-made climate change will directly affect national security.

Areas of the globe will be increasingly ravaged by drought, on the one hand, and flooding from extreme storms and rising sea levels on the other. These will cause mass migrations of refugees, the breakdown of societies and resulting conflict over reduced arable land, living space and other resources. The conflict in Sudan today is in part caused by the prolonged drought in the region. The massive movement of refugees that followed both the recent flooding in Bangladesh and the typhoon that hit Myanmar are other examples of such climate-related disruption. Climate change is seen as a “threat multiplier” that intensifies instability and sows the seeds of conflict.

Such instability and conflict will affect the United States. Armed conflict and massive political upheavals pose the risk of ever-wider hostilities and thus draw the world powers into the fray if only to contain it. Dislocation and instability will also lead to the failure of states, which become incubators for the development of other threats. Consider Somalia in the 1990s and again today. The failed state of Afghanistan in the 1990s provided a base for the planning and launching of the Sept. 11 attacks. The initial failure of Afghanistan was not caused by global warming, but a study conducted for the National Intelligence Council predicts that climate change raises the risk of many more failed states in the future.

The Pentagon and the State Department increasingly factor these expected ramifications of man-made climate change into their strategic planning and policy development. But the impact on national security should also be part of the broader debate on emissions policy. The greater and more rapid the climate change, the more quickly these threats will emerge – and the greater will be the impact on our national security.

Thus, efforts by the United States to reduce carbon emissions and to lead the rest of the world in tackling global warming are partly an effort to reduce the likely threats to our own national security. As the military strategist Sun Tzu wrote more than 2,500 years ago, the very acme of military skill is never having to fight a battle. General Zinni echoed this wisdom recently, saying “we will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today … or we’ll pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives.”

Some still cling to the tired argument that the link between human activity and climate change has not been “proven.” But in military and strategic matters, we do not wait until a risk has actually exploded into reality or wait for potential threats to be proven before developing our defenses. We defend against our best estimate of the future threat. So even if some holdouts continue to doubt the causes of global warming, prudence still dictates that we act now to respond to the risk.

Of course, the scientific community overwhelmingly endorses the position that humans are causing global warming and that we are near the point of no return. Meaning, unless we take action now, climate change will increasingly and radically multiply the threats to our national security, and the future drain on our military resources will dwarf the economic cost of taking action today. And we will pay in blood as well as treasure. That is something we would do well to remember when we consider the climate change bill before the Senate.