I recently had the good fortune to drop by the British Embassy for a viewing of filmmaker Michael Nash’s most recent film Climate Refugees. After the event, I had a chance to catch up with Nash and it was clear that he was someone interesting that we at the Natural Security blog needed to talk to. Here’s what I asked and what he had to say:
Daniel Saraceno (DS): First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the Natural Security team and those following the Natural Security Blog. After the screening of Climate Refugees at the British Embassy you made some interesting comments on how you came to learn of the national security implications of climate change featured in the film. Would you speak to how the project’s focus had changed from an environmental and humanitarian film to one featuring climate change’s potential as a threat multiplier?
Michael Nash (MN): Originally, in any treatment or outline that I created for the documentary Climate Refugees, never did the two words “climate” and “war” ever go together. It was never part of the story. It wasn’t until I started interviewing scholars, politicians, military personnel and scientist that the national security implications of climate change really started to emerge. In the early part of 2007, after interviewing Senator John Kerry and Peter Schwartz, I quickly began to wrap my arms around the intersection that civilization was confronting. The collision of over population, over consumption, lack of resources and our changing climate. The effect: mass global migration of climate refugees. We have always migrated in search of food and water, but now, there is no more real estate; people are crossing borders for survival. This is something new. Something the world has never dealt with.
I interviewed several military personal, from Generals to consultants. This is really becoming a big issue that is now on their radar. In September of 2009, the New York Times did an article on the subject of climate change being a national security issue; it was the first report I had read that really endorsed what we had stated in the film. People crossing borders based on our changing climate and the responsibility of military humanitarian mission are going to be part of our future.
The Elliot School at George Washington University featured a discussion under the superfluous title of Responding to Threats of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes, which while evoking images of disasters such as the Dust Bowl, the Great Chicago fire and Hot Tub Time Machine, felt as if it could have been better titled as “Cool Graphs and Uncertain Assumptions with Climate Projections.”
The event featured a discussion with Michael Toman, Research Manager with the World Bank’s Energy and Environment Team and Lead Economist in the Development Research Group.
Most of the lecture rested on the idea that climate change projections do not carry equal implications across the globe; that each country could feature different types of climate changes, in varying degrees of severity. Furthermore, variations in intensity of the environmental changes and their potential effects would likely be seen within individual countries—a point that cannot be stressed enough to those assuming climate change means a global heat wave.
While it was an engaging discussion, there were several points made that concerned me. My main concern was with his argument that the poor would be fairly well off in the face of global climate change; that they would naturally adapt to climate change by altering their farming practices. The problem I have is that this seems to be based on two rather unrealistic assumptions: first, that most of the world’s poor are farmers to begin with, something that may come as a pleasant surprise to countless non-agricultural slum inhabitants, when they discover they are in fact Slumdog Millionaires; and second, that regardless of the availability of alternative agricultural products (e.g., heat-resistant seed varietals), the poor of the world would have the wherewithal to invest in new farming techniques to adapt to climate change.
With President Obama’s trip to Indonesia delayed several times, and tensions there already high, I thought it might be interesting to look at the unique and emerging partnership between the United States and Indonesia in this edition of Top 5. It seems as if a strong partnership between these two countries is just beginning, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in her address at the Asia Society, February 13, 2009:
The Indonesian Government has . . . suggested the creation of a deeper partnership with the United States. This idea represents a positive approach to areas of common concern, and we are committed to working with Indonesia to pursue such a partnership with a concrete agenda.
So here we go folks. Time to look at five recent and historic partnerships between the United States and Indonesia on natural security issues. In no particular order:
1) 2009: Debt Forgiveness for Environment and Resource Protection
The U.S. provided Indonesia with $30million in debt forgiveness in exchange for efforts to conserve and preserve its own environment and natural resources. This was accomplished though an Indonesian partnership with the United States under the 1998 Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA).
2) 2008: Pirates in the Strait of Malacca
To some, it may seem that piracy, before its recent spike in Somalia, has been relatively nonexistent on the high seas since the days of The Queen Anne’s Revenge, but for those sailing through the Strait of Malacca, it’s been a modern problem for some time now. As discussed in a previous Top 5 post, the Strait of Malacca is a strategic choke point for many international energy resources. Tackling this security challenge in this region is then in the vested interest of not only countries such as Indonesia, but the United States and the entire globe. In light of this, in 2008 “the U.S. provided the Indonesian police with 15 patrol boats for use in security maintenance operations against maritime crimes,” in addition to technical assistance provided in previous years.
If you’ll permit me to diverge a tad into a topic that may not seem totally security-related, the big news for me this weekend was the passing away of Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and champion of national parks. I wasn’t alive when he served in government, so my admiration of his work is based on reading his writings from decades past. Researching natural resources issues naturally brought me to many of his articles.
We’ll have a new report out soon which explains a bit more deeply how we see conservation and better ecosystem management as important security tools. In the meantime, Udall’s death reminded me of the hopeful story last year of Band-e Amir becoming Afghanistan’s first national park. Obviously the war there continues regardless of the establishment of this park. But for the longer-term picture in Afghanistan, remember that USAID estimates that roughly 70% of its population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods – and promoting stable livelihoods is obviously important for our long-term goals in that country. Without protecting the ecosystems that support that agriculture, we’re looking at either a pretty dire long-term outlook for Afghanistan, or a dramatic need to ensure that it creates a high-tech or service economy to bring in money.
Esteemed colleague CDR Herb Carmen also Tweeted a good link yesterday to Udall’s 1972 Atlantic article, “The Last Traffic Jam,” on the growing U.S. demand for cars and their use and therefore oil. The article is well worth a read, but my favorite thing about this might be that to the right of the article (at the time I viewed it Sunday) the most prominent ad is for the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. Nice contrast to Udall’s warning that it was unsound policy for the United States to rely on increasing oil importation and long-term development of new domestic oil resources to fulfill our own growing demand, and “the oil needs of the other industrialized countries [which] are growing faster than ours.”