August 14, 2009

News Roundup: Climate and Security

The Sunday New York Times reported – front-page, above the fold – that climate change is a threat to U.S. national security. John Broder, writing for the Times, reported that “the changing global climate will pose profound challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics.” The story elicited numerous responses this week from both proponents and skeptics of the notion that climate change is a threat to U.S. security.

Reuters’ Joel Makower claimed that nothing new is happening here. “The Times writers, like so many others, have short memories. This is hardly ‘the first time’ the military has examined this topic,” Makower wrote. “Why the seemingly ‘new’ interest by the Pentagon on climate? Perhaps because the price of inaction may be seen as hitting closer to home.” However, Makower remained somewhat optimistic that reemphasizing climate change as a national security challenge may compel more expedient solutions. “If the national security crowd joins in on the side of prudent proactive measures to address America's greenhouse gas emissions, it could accelerate the speed and scale of carbon regulation,” he said.
Elsewhere in the blogosphere, some were immediately skeptical of portraying climate change as a threat to U.S. national security. At ThinkProgress, Matt Yglesias called the conflation “hubristic imperialism,” criticizing the idea that the United States should intervene in “every possible instance” of climate-related “drought, famine, mass migration, civil conflict, and human tragedy abroad.” Yglesias, however, did concede that framing climate change in a way that draws attention to the impacts it will have on real people is certainly useful.
Foreign Policy’s Steven Walt joined the fray, expressing his skepticism about climate change as a national security threat. Walt wondered if climate change is really a threat to vital U.S. interests. While conceding the potential for increased natural disasters and strife caused by climate change, Walt doubted that those future events would constitute threats to U.S. national security. For example, Bangladeshi refugees fleeing sea-level rise would be India’s problem, not America’s, he said. “Climate change might also foster instability in various "volatile areas," but it does not immediately follow from that observation that U.S. interests will necessarily be affected in any significant way,” Walt argued. In all likelihood the United States will only provide humanitarian assistance, which is an act of goodwill but not strategic necessity, according to Walt.
Finally, NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook took to discussing the climate change-national security nexus in an interview with the DotEarth’s Andrew Revkin, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Strategy Amanda Dory, Gen. Paul Kearn (Ret.), and CNAS Vice President for Natural Security Sharon Burke. “Now climate change is getting the attention of real warriors — the Pentagon and U.S. Defense Department — as a national security issue,” Ashbrook said. The commentators took questions from callers, gave examples of climate change as a threat multiplier, and compared proposed methods for grappling with challenge.