August 25, 2011

The Climate/Security Nexus

Richard A. Matthew has published “Is Climate Change a National Security Issue?” (Issues, Spring 2011) at just the right time. I would answer his question with a resounding “yes”; however, his piece clarifies why the emerging field of analysis on the climate/security nexus is in need of fresh thinking.

The critics Matthew cites are correct in saying that the past literature linking climate change and security suffered from weak methods. For those of us analyzing this topic years ago, it was a conceptual challenge to define the range of potential effects of the entire world changing in such rapid (on human time scales) and ahistorical ways.

We relied (too) heavily on future scenarios and therefore on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s consensus-based and imprecise scientific projections. Much early writing was exploratory, as researchers attempted simply to add scope to a then-boundless debate. Serious consideration of causal relationships was often an afterthought. Even today, the profound lack of environmental, social, and political data needed to trace causal relationships consistently hampers clear elucidation of climate/security relationships.

Yet these weaknesses of past analysis are no cause to cease research on climate change and security now, in what Matthews accurately describes as its “imperfect” state. Today’s danger is that environmental change is far outpacing expectations. Furthermore, much of the early analysis on climate change and security was probably too narrow, and off track in looking primarily at unconventional or human security challenges at the expense of more precisely identifying U.S. national security interests at stake. This is reflected in Matthew’s categorization of previous research as focused on three main concerns: those affecting national power, diminishing state power, or driving violent conflict. The author accurately describes the past literature and his categories still resonate, especially in cases in which local-level unrest is affecting U.S. security goals in places such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Mexico.

Still, the author’s categories are not broad enough to capture the climate change–related problems that today are the most worrisome for U.S. security (a weakness not in Matthew’s assessment, but in past research). Climate change is contributing to renewed interest in nuclear energy and therefore to materials proliferation concerns. Environmental change has already affected important alliance relationships. Natural resources top the list of strategically important issues to China, the most swiftly ascending power in the current geopolitical order. Fear of future scarcity and the lure of future profit from resources are amplifying territorial tendencies to the point of altering regional stability in the Arctic, the South China Sea, and elsewhere.

Matthew’s article makes an important contribution in serving as the best summary to date of what I’d call the first wave of climate change and national security research. I’m hopeful that it will further serve as a springboard for launching a much-needed second wave—one more methodologically rigorous that includes greater consideration of conventional U.S. security challenges.