August 12, 2009

One of These Things is (Not?) Like the Others

When I was a kid in the early 70s, one of my favorite Sesame Street features was a fun little musical game called “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others).” The objective was to choose from among four objects the one that didn’t fit with the others—like a bottle of Pierre-Jouet Fleur Rosé pictured alongside a Bud Light, a PBR, and a Billy Beer (personally, I would go with the PBR).

During my frequent forays into the national security community, I am often reminded of that little game while discussing the possibility that climate change might have legitimate links with national security. No matter how you slice it, most folks in the community can’t picture climate change as a mainstream security issue alongside nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, and weapons systems. But recently a fascinating change seems to be afoot. More and more, security and foreign policy wonks, practitioners, and commentators are including climate change in their lists of key security issues facing the United States. There are some striking examples coming from people and institutions that factor strongly into the national security discourse.

One of These Things (IS Like the Others!)
 U.S. Defense Budget  Number of Combat Fatalities
 Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Concentration  Number of Nuclear Weapon Tests

My Sesame Street analogy was shattered last week when a colleague alerted me to the Brookings Institution’s new publication, “How We're Doing: A Composite Index of Global and National Trends.” The purpose of the “How We’re Doing” index is to gauge the condition of the nation and the world with regard to “the American Constitution’s mandate that the government ‘provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.’” The index tracks various metrics for those three categories at the six-month mark in the last six presidencies, Carter through Obama.

While there are many interesting nuggets in this report, one in particular caught my eye. Right there among a host of traditional national security metrics, such as the U.S. defense budget and the number of U.S. military combat fatalities, sat a new category:  “Greenhouse gas concentrations in atmosphere.”  Calling climate change “the ultimate mega-threat,” the authors, led by experienced foreign policy and security practitioner Bill Antholis, wrote:

…the concentration of greenhouse gases is creeping upward toward a level that scientists believe will cause the increase in the mean temperature of the planet to trigger a perfect storm of irreversible and catastrophic consequences unless somehow checked or countered.

The “How We’re Doing index” is just one example among many mainstream foreign policy and national security voices that now put climate change on their lists of key national security challenges facing the United States and the world. Some more examples follow.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has openly recognized climate change as a key element of the threat environment within which the U.S. military must operate. For example, he stated on July 15, 2008 in a speech before the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign:

We also know that over the next 20 years and more certain pressures – population, energy, climate, economic, and environmental – could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy outlined five threats being assessed by DoD in the current Quadrennial Defense Review:

  • Globalization and poverty
  • Global climate change
  • Youth bulges in the Middle East and other unstable regions
  • Increasing global competition for natural resources
  • Increasing access to destabilizing technologies

Regarding climate change, Ms. Flournoy stated:  “[G]lobal climate change may actually accelerate some of these trends, particularly state failure, mass migration, spread of disease, possibly even insurgencies, as weak governments have increasingly difficult time coping.” (Statement before the Army Leader Forum, May 4, 2009).

Senator John Warner (R-VA, retired) fought with the Marines in the Korean War, served as Undersecretary and then Secretary of the Navy from 1969 to 1974, and as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee for more than six years between 1999 and 2007. In 2007, Senators Warner and Joe Lieberman co-sponsored the America's Climate Security Act of 2007, which became the first carbon cap-and-trade bill ever to pass out of committee in either house of Congress. Although the bill did not pass the full Senate, it marked the beginning of a sustained effort by Senator Warner to enact effective climate legislation, an effort he continues after retiring from the Senate in January of 2009. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he explained his concern about climate change and national security this way:

I spent thirty years in the U.S. Senate working on behalf of our men and women in uniform serving our country; in my last years, on issues related to the potential impact of climate changes on their future military roles and missions. Leading military, intelligence, and security experts have publically spoken out that if left unchecked, global warming could increase instability and lead to conflict in already fragile regions of the world.

If we ignore these facts, we do so at the peril of our national security and increase the risk to those in uniform who serve our nation. It is for this reason that I firmly believe the U.S. must take a leadership role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Other nations are moving ahead and the U.S. must join and step to the forefront.

In December 2008, the National Intelligence Council released the latest in a series of unclassified reports that provide long-term scenarios assessing the future international threat environment. In Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, the NIC foresees a world with increased scarcity of and competition for resources that will be exacerbated by climate change:

The already stressed resource sector will be further complicated and, in most cases, exacerbated by climate change, whose physical effects will worsen throughout this period. (p. 41)

The report also unambiguously identifies it as a security issue:

On newer security issues like climate change, U.S. leadership will be widely perceived as critical to leveraging competing and divisive views to find solutions. (p. xi)

Perhaps the watershed event for mainstreaming climate change as a national security issue came when CNA released its 2007 report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. A highly distinguished panel of 11 retired three- and four-star flag officers concluded unanimously that:

Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States…The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay. (p. 3)

Of course, climate change is not just like most traditional security issues. It is not perpetrated by a sworn enemy and it is not going to threaten the United States with national collapse anytime soon. Its dangers are more insidious, far flung, diverse, and intangible than those of nuclear weapons or an insurgency in Afghanistan. As such, climate change has a tough time competing with more immediate priorities that are in the faces of today's decision makers. But intangibility and diversity of threats is what makes climate change so dangerous. It lurks in the background, amping up social pressures, vulnerabilities and multiplying the associated threats. Waiting to deal with the security consequences of climate change, instead of heading them off now, will mean that the security community has failed to plan for a secure future. Because stopping climate change three decades from now means implementing policy for that purpose today.