As Navy servicemen pack vital water supplies after Typhoon Fengshen, we’re reminded of the wide range of strategic and operational functions of the U.S. armed services. Past decades have seen the U.S. military as an increasingly important provider of disaster relief, and if global climate change produces the more frequent and higher-intensity storms that are projected, the humanitarian response efforts of the United States will be in even greater demand. U.S. security planners need to consider this increased demand to adequately prepare for likely future burdens.
Photo: U.S. Navy and Philippine servicemen loading water bottles for delivery in the relief effort after Typhoon Fengshen. Courtesy of Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist (SW/NAC) Spike Call and the U.S. Navy.
Big news started early in the week for the U.S. Army on Monday, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced his plan to grow the branch by 22,000 troops to a total standing force of 569,000. Gates’s call comes in response to prolonged strain on forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and though force structure per se doesn’t fall directly under the purview of the Natural Security Program, the announcement set the tone for the days to follow.
The New York Times also provided a look at DOD’s efforts to cut energy demand. In the article, Alan Shaffer, DOD principal deputy director for defense research and engineering, reported that the Army’s fuel use increased more than tenfold as it transitioned to wartime operations after 2001. Thus far, the “greening” of the U.S. military has mostly been an exercise in self-imposed pragmatism—lower energy costs free up much-needed funds and fewer fuel convoys reduce some in-theater vulnerabilities.
But despite ongoing efforts to trim energy consumption, the Armed Forces Press Service reported this week that Army units in Afghanistan are still facing perilous conditions supplying forward operating bases with food and energy, especially as combat operations intensify in Helmand province. The 286th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion, for example, must increase supply volumes even as hazardous conditions persist.
“Surely it has to frustrate you coming from where you come from that this country is not embarking on a massive project and working with China and India to do the same – nuclear countries already – to build many, many nuclear facilities to combat this [climate change] issue that you’re so concerned about,” said Senator Bob Corker at the July 20, 2009, hearing "Climate Change and Global Security: Challenges, Threats and Diplomatic Opportunities," before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From my vantage point within the security community, it is not terribly frustrating. Because for all the benefits that come with diversifying the energy portfolio by increasing nuclear power, the inextricable security challenges too often get missed or ignored.
What was missing from Senator Corker’s remarks was an indication of the potential security concerns with nuclear power projects popping up all over the world. Nuclear non-proliferation has been an intractable issue for more than a half century, an issue we’re reminded of day in and day out by Iran and North Korea. But with nuclear energy reentering the global debate as a pseudo-panacea for the world’s energy woes, the threat of proliferation may become more urgent.
Yesterday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on “Climate Change and Global Security: Challenges, Threats, and Diplomatic Opportunities.” (CNAS Veep and Natural Security Blogger Sharon Burke testified, and may share her insights here later.) I thought one of the most important comments of the day came from Senator John Kerry in his opening remarks:
…climate change injects a major new source of chaos, tension, and human insecurity into an already volatile world. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity, and human displacement on a staggering scale. Places only too familiar with the instability, conflict, and resource competition that often create refugees and IDPs, will now confront these same challenges with an ever growing population of EDPs—environmentally displaced people. We risk fanning the flames of failed-statism, and offering glaring opportunities to the worst actors in our international system. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us.
This is an important point, often the focus for our program and others like it, quite different from the academic argument concerning
The Natural Security Blog will be posting our thoughts on Sharon Burke's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shortly. As she said in her opening statement, we all took this hearing as an encouraging sign that climate change is now being considered a serious national security issue. More to follow.
Last night CNAS hosted “Lost in Translation,” a dinner event that brought together key policy makers and scientists to discuss the age old question of why the two communities can’t often understand what each other are talking about. Up for discussion was the use of climate science in the policy-making process, and how to better meet the needs of both sides. More specifically, moderator Sharon Burke pushed participants to explain their personal experiences as consumers and producers of climate science.
At the forefront of the exchange was the recognition of the need for increased interparty communication. Congress, the President, scientists, and all other vested communities must talk to each other about climate change more honestly and at greater depth than ever before, one attendee remarked, with others around the table nodding vigorously in agreement. At times throughout the evening, participants contested and counter-contested their colleagues’ assertions, but a desire for greater communication among them all was unanimous. Indeed, some contended that this problem will never really be solved – scientists and policy makers will never be a perfect marriage – but that regular dialogue and a process of learning from one another will improve the situation.
“Do the world’s environmental problems threaten American national security?” wonders Geoffrey Dabelko in this autumn 1999 Wilson Quarterly piece, “The Environment Factor.” In this article, Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a longtime scholar on the frontline of the environmental security debate (and, full disclosure, my former boss) explores the evolution of environmental issues within the national security community.
For Dabelko, it was journalist – now CNAS senior fellow – Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Anarchy,” which explored the nexus of environmental challenges and state failure in West Africa, that jumpstarted the debate in Washington in the 1990s. Kaplan’s article praised scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon’s work on the complexity of resource scarcity and the potential for civil strife and violence, and “sketched a dark view of the global future.” As Dabelko writes, “The environment will be the national security issue of the 21st century, Kaplan declared, and Homer-Dixon held the keys to understanding it.”
While not even vaguely as exciting as reports of flesh-eating military robots (which, either fortunately or unfortunately depending on one’s point of view, turned out to actually just be vegetable biomass-powered machines), this week did feature a number of consequential moves in the realm of energy security both domestically and internationally.
In the Washington Post, retiring Alaska Governor Sarah Palin came out swinging against the Waxman-Markey bill currently in committee in the Senate, arguing that any form of cap-and-trade system would be catastrophic to the U.S. economy. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry fired back at Governor Palin in the Huffington Post, stating that Governor Palin’s assertion that America’s energy woes can be solved by exploiting domestic oil, natural gas, and coal reserves completely ignores the issue of climate change, which could be catastrophic not only to the economy but across the board. In other domestic news, supermajor Exxon Mobil seems to believe that the Obama administration is serious in its professed desire to push forward the development of biofuels, as it announced a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels this week, despite CEO Rex Tillerson’s well-documented skepticism on the subject.
Perennially ravaged by civil war and resource conflict, the DRC is in the midst of confronting yet another natural security challenge, adding trial to tribulation. The region’s historically rich ecosystem is currently threatened by deforestation, the result of increasing demand for land by farmers and herders. Alone, competition for land between the two groups is contributing to regional instability, but it’s also diminishing biodiversity, a necessary prerequisite to ecological (and economic and national) security.
Photo: Ground view of a logging operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Courtesy of Scott Thompson and the World Resources Institute on flickr.
By the year 2022, things have taken a decided turn for the worse in New York City – and the world in general, we’re led to believe – in the 1973 classic dystopian film Soylent Green.
In the opening montage, the viewer is presented with a series of images showing an increasingly polluted, overpopulated, and energy hungry world where the streets are full of trash and the buildings – quite literally – overflowing with people. New York City has a population of 40 million and an unemployment rate of about 50%, riots are common, and the climate is discussed as being a “heat wave all year long” thanks to the greenhouse effect. Most importantly, water is extremely scarce – with long queues for access to public spigots – and food as we know it is all but nonexistent, available only to the ultra-elite. In its place, people subsist on manufactured rations produced by the ubiquitous Soylent Corporation. These rations come in three varieties – Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and the eponymous Soylent Green, which is ostensibly produced from oceanic plankton, and is by far the most popular of the trio (it’s only available on Tuesdays, and when it runs out, riots break out that can only be controlled by police in football helmets and what appear to be backhoes).
Just as we need to be more cognizant of the role of natural security issues in shaping where U.S. strategic interests lie – and where we engage our troops – a guest post on The New Security Beat reminds us that it can be especially critical in post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization.
“They are the backbone of the Information Age and, potentially, the clean energy future. They are in iPods, Blackberrys, and plasma TVs. They are powerful and compact; they are exceedingly efficient. In many cases, there are no substitutes for them,” writes Kent Garber in a July 1, 2009, U.S News Weekly special report. “They” are rare earth elements. And they are “America’s new dependency.” And much like oil and other resource dependencies, our reliance on rare earth minerals will play a significant role in U.S national security.
Today, an article on page A1 of New York Times reports on the shrinking Euphrates, civilization’s first most important river and now one that will be critical to reconstruction and further economic development in Iraq. Unfortunately, drought has stolen the precipitation necessary to recharge the river, and water levels now deviate 95 percent from the yearly average. The impact on the Iraqi people is indiscriminate; the Times reports that diplomats, herders, MPs, and farmers are all feeling the strain on water supply, though some, admittedly, more than others. Granted, Iraq is historically accustomed to the occasional drought, but the degree of recent water scarcity is unprecedented, at least according to the accounts of the locals.
The current dangerously low water levels in the Euphrates are the result of more than natural phenomena. Governmental water policies in Ankara and Damascus bear a heavy burden of blame. Located downstream on the Euphrates, Iraq and its water supply are at the mercy of Turkish and Syrian dam regulation. For now, Turkey has increased flow into the Euphrates, pushing water levels back up to vary only 60% below average. So far, however, Ankara’s decision is one of largesse; no treaties or institutions currently govern regional rights to water. Until the dams open or the drought subsides, thirsty Iraqis will be forced to find alternate sources for agriculture and consumption, which now sometimes include reservoirs already polluted with sewage.
Yesterday I attended a small “National Security Scholars” conference put together by the Air Force. Here is a survey of the natural security issues mentioned in this one-day, on-the-record chat – mentions were low in quantity but, most important, high in quality:
Nearly 45 years ago, Time magazine reported on the growing global demand for the planet’s fixed quantity of freshwater in an article entitled “A Question of Birthright.” At the time, chronic droughts in traditionally arid environments like the Sahara and parts of the Middle East had begun to appear in unsuspecting countries like the Koreas and Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
Reporting from October 1965, the article projected that world demand for water would double in two decades, creating “an expanding challenge to scientific ingenuity.” Solutions had to be found. Tongue in cheek, the author claimed that “dowsers, who used to roam the land with their unreliable witch-hazel divining rods, are no longer adequate” as guarantors of water supply. No disagreement there.
One of the article’s central observations remains true today: simply, that throughout the vast span of geologic time, including all of human history, the amount of water on the planet has remained fixed. The sixties, though, saw a broadening realization that a burgeoning world population and rising living standards placed increased demand on this finite resource than in decades and centuries past. Since then, population levels and relative consumption have risen even higher and will continue to do so, making the issue of water security that existed in 1965 even more pressing for countries today.
The New York Times reported today that, with relatively little fanfare, Iraqi Kurds are moving forward with a referendum on a proposed constitution for Kurdistan, with a vote likely to be held later this year. The proposed constitution is drawing the ire of Baghdad, because, among other things, it gives the Kurdistan Regional Government (as opposed to the Iraqi government) the rights to oil and gas within the region, and defines Kurdistan as encompassing several disputed (and, incidentally, energy-rich) areas of Iraq, including all of Kirkuk Province and parts of Ninevah and Diyala. The natural security implications of this sort of move are fairly self-evident – Iraq is concerned that Kurdistan is essentially moving towards outright separatism rather than federalism – and show how competing resource claims can drive conflicts between, or, in this case, within states.
The Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad have been at loggerheads for some time now (The New York Times notes that Prime Minister al-Maliki is not on speaking terms with Kurdish president Massoud Barzani), and energy has played a front-and-center role in their disputes. The government in Kurdistan has already signed a number of contracts with foreign oil companies, much to the displeasure of Baghdad. As Willis Sparks writes in Foreign Policy, the Iraqi government does not recognize these contracts between oil companies and the Kurdish Regional Government, and has “blacklisted” companies who sign them. To this point, all of the supermajors have avoided signing contracts with Kurdistan, preferring instead to wait to try to develop the giant oil fields in the south of the country. However, given the recent fiasco that was the auction for development rights held by the Iraqi government, it’s possible that this trend will begin to reverse. While not a supermajor, Sinopec is now a major player in Kurdistan with their recent acquisition of Addax, and if the Iraqi Oil Ministry continues to be unable to come to terms with bidders, more firms may begin to gain interest in Kurdistan, which is showing itself much more willing and able to work with foreign companies to this point. The danger in all of this is that if Iraq is unable to make significant progress in auctioning its development rights, and Kurdistan is, the Kurds will likely feel more and more empowered, and perhaps emboldened enough to push for complete independence, which could have disastrous implications for Iraqi – and regional – security.