Climate Change as National Security Issue

The rationale for government and private enterprise to take further actions to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change are frequently based in scientific, economic, or environmental arguments. In recent years, however, a new angle has emerged to motivate action on environmental issues: national security.

A 2014 report by the Pentagon on climate change adaptation featured a foreword by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. In it, he warned of the dangerous security effects of a warming planet, and emphasized the need for unified action. This is a continuation of the work of the Defense Department, which had formed a working group devoted to climate change in 2012. In addition to analyzing the potential danger of infrastructure damage due to rising sea levels and storms, it also warns of the effects of a changing climate on fragile governments.

Not only do rising sea levels and increased instances of severe weather pose a danger to cities, populations, and military costal bases, climate change also serves as a “threat multiplier.” This term was coined in 2007 in the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board’s National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change report, authored by sixteen retired military Generals and Admirals. They found that shifting climates and environmental events can play a significant role in destabilizing governments and populations. The 2014 Pentagon report has similar findings, also noting the disruptive role climate events will play in food and water distribution in addition to energy and fuel concerns.

Climate change is poised to intensify storms, put a greater strain on water supplies in some areas, and also pose a danger to the food supply by changing local temperatures, which will affect crop yields. In areas without stable governments or markets, shortages of basic goods such as food and water can worsen the internal political situation. Extremist groups and ideologies thrive when supplies of basic goods are interrupted, often stepping in to distribute these items. Not only does this earn them money, it also contributes to their credibility among local communities. The most recent version of the Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas has identified 32 countries whose civil unrest is likely to be amplified by the effects of climate change, with the most likely predicted to be Bangladesh.

Mitigating the effects of climate change and avoiding these security-related issues goes beyond what people traditionally think of when it comes to environmental solutions (such as implementing targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions). For developed nations such as the United States, proactive measures to protect cities and people from the negative effects of climate change (such as placing sea walls off the shore of coastal cities), or harnessing the effects of a changing climate for beneficial purposes (by changing an area’s agricultural crops to ones which grow better in a warmer climate) are all viable adaptation options. But the developing world, which is more adversely affected by climate events, lacks the capital for large infrastructural investments and alterations, providing greater difficulty in adapting to climate change.

Defense Secretary Hagel wrote in the Pentagon’s report that “politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” emphasizing the need for unified, informed action. The effects of climate change will be stark, and some of them are now unavoidable. Even if all emissions were eliminated today, greenhouse gas emissions can remain in the atmosphere for over 100 years after they are emitted. We will surely see at least some effects due to climate change. And now studies show that climate change is far more than just an environmental event. In addition to the effects it will have on our ecosystem, global climate change threatens the provision of basic resources and has the potential to destabilize entire regions of the world.

The expected effects of climate change on regions as a “threat multiplier” reveals climate change to be an issue which must not only be addressed as an environmental or scientific concern, but also one of national security. Scientifically-informed long-term planning must be undertaken to not only fund and develop our own climate change adaptation measures, but also to assist in the preparations of others. While certain adaptation measures may be viable for the developed world, for many nations they are not a financial or political reality.

As the United States works toward creating effective climate change agreements and committing itself to emissions targets, the world must be mindful of the difficulties facing developing countries. They are more at risk from the effects of climate change, while being the least-well equipped to adapt quickly or efficiently. It is important to understand that the damage caused by climate change goes beyond the extinction of a certain species of animal, or the melting of ice in a place that seems too far away to matter. Understanding that climate change causes real, tangible security issues can be a more impactful way to view a problem that demands a solution now.

Image Credit: The Pentagon, taken by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons

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