July 27, 2009

At Senate Hearing on Climate Change and National Security, a Witness’s Perspective

On Tuesday, July 21st, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called a hearing on the national security implications of climate change. Arguably, it should have been the Senate Armed Services Committee, but the SFRC was right for so many reasons. Start with the fact that the Chairman and the Ranking Member have been leading the way on energy security and climate change for the nation for some time.

First and foremost, this hearing legitimized the notion that climate change is a national security issue, and that the national security community needs to look at climate change as a concern with planning, policy, force structure, and budgeting implications. It was a bipartisan hearing, both in the senators in attendance and in the witnesses.

The star witness was former five-term senator, the Honorable John Warner, who is honorable, indeed. He could do anything he wanted to with his life right now, including just hang out with his grandchildren, but he has chosen to make raising awareness of climate change his mission. Two of the other panelists were retired flag-rank military officers – between them, about 70 years of experience in the U.S. navy. They passionately and persuasively talked about the national security challenges of climate change.

The fourth panelist was…me. I’ve attended many hearings, prepared others for hearings, but never been in the witness chair myself – it’s a slightly

surreal experience. If nothing else, the lighting in those cavernous hearing rooms is dim and gloomy, but with really bright spot lights aimed at the witness table, and the senators look down at you from a dais – it all lends a spooky, inquisitorial air. I was duly nervous, though I actually enjoyed the conversation, except for the fact that in stumbling over my words in reading my statement, I finally blurted “bleargh” in frustration. I wonder if they transcribed that?

On to the more substantive points. I thought Senator Kerry and the panelists did a GREAT job of laying out the national security implications of climate change, and encourage everyone to read the statements. Vice Admiral Gunn is President of the American Security Project, and Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn is affiliated with RemoteReality, CNA, and the Rocky Mountain Institute, so they both have an ongoing commitment to national security policy, and in the case of Admiral McGinn, deep experience with energy policy, as well.

There were a number of questions asked, some I wish I could have answered better, and some I didn’t get to answer. On the latter, I want to focus on Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who seemed to fear we were just frustrated people. He wondered if we were frustrated about the failure of some people to embrace nuclear power, and if we were frustrated that overpopulation in Sudan is causing water shortages. On the former, my colleague Will Rogers has already blogged about this – but just to give my spin on it. We should, indeed, be having a conversation in this country about nuclear power.

That conversation should include some of the so-called ‘fourth generation” options, which are (at least on paper) safer and more efficient, in some cases more proliferation resistant and they consume nuclear waste. The conversation should also include the proliferation risks – in fact, we need to have rather more than a conversation on this, given that so many more countries are now developing civilian nuclear. But the biggest part of this conversation is that it can’t take place in a vacuum:  investing in next generation nuclear may be a sensible option, but there will be an opportunity cost. There are only so many dollars to go around for energy generation and the necessary infrastructure: putting our money in nuclear means we’re not putting it anywhere else.

As for the population pressures in Sudan, there’s no question that is part of the problem. There are too many people living in an area that has long been climate-challenged, under conflict and repressive conditions. Yes, it’s frustrating, but perhaps not in the way that Senator Corker implied. One of the things I find frustrating is the lack of good options: the government of Sudan is either incapable or unwilling (surely both) of doing anything to make the situation better, and the international community can’t seem to find its footing. I do not personally find the advocacy community helpful on this issue, other than in its capacity to raise awareness. The groups that want to dispatch U.S. troops to Sudan or Darfur are looking for an easy solution, one we’ve seen is anything but easy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

CNAS has not yet looked at this nexus of land, water, conflict, weak or iniquitous government, and overpopulation, but we plan to do so. Perhaps, in partnership with other groups, we might be able to do some creative thinking about how the United States can act in a useful way in such situations, rather than just stew in our frustrations.

Senator Casey asked about Pakistan, with the response to be submitted for the record. We will be posting that response on the blog later this week. In short, though, Pakistan is getting close to being a perfect natural security storm. There is weak government, nuclear weapons, armed opposition and some barely governed territories, and tension with the neighbors, while both the causes and solutions to these security problems are tied up in shortages of food, fuel, and water, land rights and population pressures.  Climate change hangs over an already bad situation like a sword of Damocles.

Finally, Senator Shaheen asked about whether the United States can afford to think about the national security implications of climate change at a time when we are involved in two shooting wars. I think the good senator was deliberately setting up a strawman, wrapped in an excellent question. The straightforward answer is that the Pentagon and the White House need to keep focused on winning the wars we are in – and for that matter, what it even means to win these wars. At the same time, the competencies the U.S. military and U.S. government are developing in these wars – such as integrated civilian-military command structures and economic development programs, smaller, more modular force structures – are the competencies the nation is likely to need for climate change-affected contingencies (humanitarian and disaster relief, for example). And finally, it’s the government’s job to also look ahead and prepare for the future; if the Pentagon planners are not considering the likely effects of continued climate change 10, 20, 30 years or more into the future right now, we won’t be ready in 2019, 2029, and 2039.