by Judith Curry
The impacts of climate change and natural disasters can interact with the political, social, and economic circumstances of a region to alter its security environment. Through its primary security planning and strategy documents, the U.S. government has formally recognized the central importance that climate change and natural hazard impacts can have in degrading regional security. Among the key documents providing guidance regarding climate change are:
- 2010 National Security Strategy: “The danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe” . . . “[A] changing climate portends a future in which the United States must be better prepared and resourced to exercise robust leadership to help meet critical humanitarian needs” . . . “Climate change and pandemic disease threaten the security of regions and the health and safety of the American people. Failing states breed conflict and endanger regional and global security.”
- 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR): The QDR recognizes that climate change “will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment” and therefore “The Department is developing policies and plans to manage the effects of climate change on its operating environment, missions, and facilities.” . . . “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions or militaries around the world” and “Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”. . . “the Department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required…As climate science advances, the Department will regularly reevaluate climate change risks and opportunities in order to develop policies and plans to manage its effects on the Department’s operating environment, missions, and facilities. Managing the national security effects of climate change will require DoD to work collaboratively, through a whole-of-government approach, with both traditional allies and new partners.”
- 2009 Army Posture Statement: “Increased resource demand, in particular energy, water, and food, is a consequence of growing prosperity and populations. The grow- ing global competition for resources will continue to produce friction and increase opportunities for conflict. In this environment, climate change and natural disasters will compound already dif- ficult conditions in developing countries by ig- niting humanitarian crises, causing destabilizing population migrations, and raising the potential for epidemic diseases.”
- 2008 National Intelligence Assessment on the National Security Implications of Global Climate Change to 2030: In 2008 congressional testimony, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Dr. Thomas Fingar, stated: “We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years…We judge that the most significant impact for the United States will be indirect and result from climate-driven effects on many other countries and their potential to seriously affect US national security interests. We assess that climate change alone is unlikely to trigger state failure in any state out to 2030, but the impacts will worsen existing problems – such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions. Climate change could threaten domestic stability in some states, potentially contributing to intra- or, less likely, interstate conflict, particularly over access to increasingly scarce water resources. We judge that economic migrants will perceive additional reasons to migrate because of harsh climates, both within nations and from disadvantaged to richer countries.”
Impacts + vulnerability = threat accelerant
These statements from the White House, military, and intelligence agencies clearly recognized climate change and natural disaster impacts as accelerants that can exacerbate existing sources of instability. Climate change and natural disasters are not intrinsic security threats; rather, climate change impacts and natural hazards can serve as multiplier stressors on potentially already-unstable conditions, or can disrupt components of a country (infrastructure, health, governance systems, etc.), thereby resulting in destabilized conditions. These destabilized conditions may result in conflict, migration, terrorism, and humanitarian disasters.
The vulnerability of the affected population and environment can be contingent on the governance, economic, infrastructure, and poverty conditions in which local populations live. The UNISDR Global Assessment Report 2009 provides a comprehensive assessment of the differential effects that disasters could have on individual nations. For example, Japan has 1.4 times the population exposed to tropical cyclones than the Philippines. However, the mortality of the Philippines would be 17 times that of Japan for a cyclone event of the same magnitude owing to poverty, differing levels of infrastructure, and the response resiliency of governmental systems.
Some regional security issues are described in the report on National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. Specific issues for Africa are described here and here. Arctic issues are described here.
Reducing the threat accelerant aspect of extreme events and climate change
In a recent DOD solicitation for proposals, the following concerns were identified:
While long-term global climate change has captured the world’s attention and has ignited discourse on the implications and impact for regional stability and the security environment, it is seasonal and inter-annual variability that is perhaps more relevant to the management and distribution of energy, water and food resources – considered future flash points of conflict by many. Consideration of water, food and energy cycles includes a spectrum in interagency, inter-stakeholder interests, ranging from disaster response and management, to agricultural efficiency, coastal management, ecological wellbeing and forecasting, as well as the effective management of water, food and energy resources. Inter-annual and seasonal variability can provide appropriate drivers to the types of planning, activities and preparation for longer term trends that might have association with climate change. By understanding the measures of effectiveness and performance of existing systems in terms of their ability to handle seasonal and inter-annual variability, one can characterize the performance envelope and assess this as related to longer term trends in order to optimize among a variety of choices to serve both near-term and long-term interests. Second and third order effects are also of concern. For example, representatives of US Southern Command have indicated that alterations in weather and climate patterns that impact drug cultivation, processing and distribution would require changes in DOD training, monitoring, and forward-deployed units in their area of responsibility.
The military develops contingency plans for all sorts of risks, they have much experience in decision making under conditions of deep uncertainty.
Lets conduct a thought experiment and think about how climate research might address the issues related to security concerns and provide useful information to security agencies to support their decision making. I don’t think the focus would be on simulations of 21st and 22nd century climate change associated with greenhouse gas forcing. Solutions to address the security issues overlap in a big way with solutions motivated by humanitarian issues and goals associated with economic development. Expending much more energy on regional vulnerability on time scales from weeks to decades seems to be a much better topic to focus on than the century scale simulations. Once we gain some confidence at these time scales, we would have a better basis for addressing the century time scale. With benefits to global security that also support humanitarian issues and economic development. Maybe if we can better understand climate variability and change on these time scales and can agree on the values of security, humanitarian goals, and economic development, maybe we can actually get somewhere on the climate issue.