November 15, 2011

Read This Now: Defense Science Board Report on Climate Change and Security

Last Thursday, the Defense Science Board (DSB) released its report on climate change and security, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security. The report stems from an April 2010 memo from Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Dr. Ashton Carter (now the Deputy Secretary of Defense) who charged the DSB to create a taskforce to explore current and emerging environmental and climate change trends and their implications for U.S. national security, and to recommend how the Department of Defense should coordinate with other U.S. government agencies to dampen the consequences of climate impacts. 

The report focuses largely on climate implications in Africa “due to the vulnerability of African nations with high potential to intersect with United States national interests.” It is worth pointing out as well that there is more data available on the sociopolitical and environmental implications of climate change in Africa than most other regions of the world, most notably because of the work from the University of Texas, Austin’s Climate Change Political Stability Program (CCAPS), which received DOD support through the Minerva initiative – a program that allows DOD to invest in academic institutions to “develop the intellectual capital necessary to meet the challenges of operating in a changing and complex environment.” I point this out because Minerva is one of the programs that congressional appropriators are reviewing, and CCAPS and other research programs supported by Minerva have demonstrated that the initiative does actually provide that intellectual capital that DOD officials are looking for in order to better understand the future security environment.  

Beyond Africa, though, the report has some very useful recommendations for how the Department of Defense, the national intelligence community and others in the interagency can organize their efforts to help bridge the gap between climate science and security policy. Indeed, there is still a lack of reliable data at the sub-regional and state level that security practitioners need in order to understand the impacts of climate change in places where our national security interests are at stake – places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. In particular, the authors of the DSB report recommend that the Director of National Intelligence should establish an intelligence group whose sole purpose is to focus on the national security implications of climate change. That intelligence group, the authors recommend, “should commission the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Center for Climate Change and Security to produce an assessment of regional climate change hotspots that threaten human security and governmental legitimacy and exacerbate existing tensions.”

The report also recommends that the Department of Defense expand the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs to include operational climate change issues. The authors do not define “operational climate change issues,” but I would guess that these would include changes in the environment and climate that affect the military’s war fighting capabilities in areas where the military is engaged or deployed. That does not have to apply to just our current wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), but could apply to wherever DOD assets are deployed outside the United States; perhaps, in particular, for our fixed bases (like in Bahrain, or Japan) where water availability and other environmental trends (such as storm surge and sea level rise) could impact operational readiness.  

The broader message that I think should be embraced by coupling operational energy with operational climate change is that climate change and energy are two sides of the same coin. What the United States does to enhance its operational energy
security can have knock-on effects for operational climate issues as well. For example, in Afghanistan, DOD logisticians have been exploring ways to improve water management at forward bases in order to reduce the amount of water that must be trucked in, which means more fuel and more frequent convoys that are vulnerable to insurgent attack. In 2009, General Conway, then the Commandant of the Marine Corps, told an audience at the Naval Energy Forum that purifying water in Afghanistan could potentially take 50 trucks per week off the road, which could translate into fewer troops needed for force protection, significant fuel savings from taking those trucks off the road and reducing the military’s vulnerability to attacks against its supply convoys. Moreover, such water management policies could enhance the U.S. military’s ability to be more resilient against operational climate change issues, such as growing water scarcity in regions vulnerable to drought and other climate disruptions. 

Indeed, coupling energy and climate change together shines a light on the complexity and interdependency of these trends, and the report needs to be read in that light. While the DSB report focuses largely on the need to manage climate change, it is important to be very careful not to adopt the mindset that climate impacts are inevitable, can only be managed and therefore the United States should not be focused on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. On the contrary, the United States needs to continue to do both. The report authors are right that some of the future climate change effects are already locked in given that what happens today will not be observed until decades from now. But we also need to remember that the challenges could become much worse if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Just last week the IEA warned that the world is dangerously close to a climate tipping point and that we need to make drastic changes to energy and industrial policies today in order to prevent severe climate disruptions from occurring.

What is more, it is important to remember that the positive efforts taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have the added value of making the climate adaptation and management piece a little bit easier by preventing some of the more dramatic climate manifestations from taking shape. Recall the maxim, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s something policymakers should reflect on given the current debate about how to more efficiently appropriate federal dollars. Climate change prevention is cheaper than climate change cure. 

I'll continue to dig through the report and pull out findings that are particularly relevant. Stay tuned.