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National Security and the Threat of Climate Change

Climate change's anticipated impacts such as sea level rise and forced migration can have multiplier effects, accelerating traditional security threats, conclude 11 retired flag officers in a new report from the CNA Corporation.

Date & Time

May. 14, 2007
3:00pm – 5:15pm ET


Climate change's anticipated impacts such as sea level rise and forced migration can have multiplier effects, accelerating traditional security threats. This concern is the conclusion of 11 retired flag officers in a new report from the CNA Corporation, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. The report recommends defining climate change as a national security threat, and integrating the consequences of such a threat into military planning. At an event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program on May 14, 2007, three of the retired generals joined representatives from CNA and the British Embassy to discuss the report's findings and recommendations.

"[I]f there is one thing the military does well, it is plan," said retired General Paul J. Kern of the U.S. Army. "When we plan, we look at the extremes of operations…[and] create different alternatives for how you can solve them, from the very worst-case scenario to the best case." Retired Lieutenant General Lawrence P. Farrell Jr. of the U.S. Air Force agreed: "The planning we do that goes into organizing, training, and equipping our military considers all the risks that we may face. And one of the risks we see right now is climate change."

Findings and Recommendations

In September 2006, the CNA Corporation convened 11 retired three- and four-star U.S. military generals and admirals—comprising a Military Advisory Board—to study the threats posed by climate change and propose ways in which the United States could address the consequences of climatic shifts. After eight months of deliberation, the board outlined four findings:

  • Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America's national security;
  • Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world;
  • Projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world; and
  • Climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.

According to Sherri Goodman, general counsel for the CNA Corporation and executive director of the Military Advisory Board, the deliberation period helped solidify the group's perspective: "Our bottom line is that climate change is a threat to national security and now is the time to take sensible action, to integrate it into national security frameworks, and to build the necessary capacity and resilience to address it responsibly in the future." Out of their bottom line stemmed the board's five recommendations:

  • The national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies;
  • The United States should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes to avoid disruption to global security and stability;
  • The United States should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build capacity and resiliency to climate impacts;
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) should adopt innovate processes and technologies to improve U.S. combat power through energy efficiency; and
  • DoD should conduct an assessment of the impact on U.S. military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other possible impacts of climate change over the next 30 to 40 years.

Drawing the security community into the climate change discussion has a number of advantages, said David Thomas, first secretary of energy and environment at the British Embassy: "Security is seen as an imperative, not an option. And when it comes to security, you prepare for the worst case scenario—you don't sit around and hope for the best. If we wait to act on climate change, something bad is going to happen indeed."

In April, the UN Security Council for the first time debated climate change and its security implications. Guided by the British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, whose country then held the UN Security Council's rotating chair, the debate drew skepticism from developing nations who questioned whether the issue was germane to the council's mandate. But despite some criticism, the discussion earned climate change much-needed international prominence, said Thomas: "[The UN Security Council] debate along with [the CNA] report has successfully drawn attention to this issue." He went on to quote Beckett: "While an unstable climate has obvious hard security implications, the traditional tools of hard security—bombs and bullets—are not going to be able to solve that problem. Instead we are going to have to think a lot more imaginatively and a lot more broadly about how we can act together to guarantee that kind of security. We are going to have to get a lot more hard-headed about soft-power."

Climate as Threat Multiplier

During his military service, Kern witnessed the connections between security and the availability of energy, water, environment, and food, especially in areas of high vulnerability: "You often saw instability resulting when disruption occurred in one or more of these factors." Climate change can add stress by disrupting access to these basic needs. In addition, extreme weather and other natural phenomena had a big impact on his operational decision-making, he said: "Climate shifts, sea state, and hurricanes were playing into military operations. The degree to which they became intensified certainly changed the way we behaved in our operations."

In 2003, retired General Charles F. Wald of the U.S. Air Force, then deputy commander of U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), was instructed to conduct a strategic evaluation of threats to the command. USEUCOM includes 43 of the 54 countries in Africa where climate shifts could disrupt livelihoods and stability. Using examples from Darfur and Mozambique, his evaluation concluded that climate change poses a serious risk, if ignored. In Darfur, the loss of arable land due to prolonged drought forced farmers to migrate into areas traditionally used by herders, sparking conflict that continues today, albeit under significantly new dynamics. In 1996, Mozambique experienced consistent flooding that placed most of the country under water. "The U.S. military was the only group that had the capacity to deal with [the Mozambique] humanitarian crisis," he said.

Kern also observed creeping desertification of the Sahara: "Each year the desert was expanding, causing more refugees…. If you don't have water and you don't have food and the environment becomes too hot or too cold, then you move." The resulting migration became a security concern: "When you have these great instabilities which push people out of the places…then you have a multiplying effect on the consequences."

New Threats and Engagement Strategies

Contemplating new threats to national security serves dual purposes, said Wald. It helps guide training exercises and operations, and also prepares troops for the phases of military engagement:

  • Phase One: planning;
  • Phase Two: deployment;
  • Phase Three: employment; and
  • Phase Four: redeployment.

Two other important areas of military engagement fall outside this four-phase rubric, he said: post-conflict reconstruction ("Phase Five"); and conflict prevention and capacity building ("Phase Zero"). "In Africa there is a significant opportunity for engaging in Phase Zero operations," he said. In this early phase—essentially a conflict prevention strategy—the military engages its counterparts to build capacity, good governance, and infrastructure, thereby providing countries with the necessary tools to address their own problems.

Climate Change's Unknown Quantities

If climate change can disrupt weak and vulnerable governments, Farrell said, then the security community must consider what effect—by extension—it will have on extremism and terrorism: "Where do terrorists go? They go to weak places where governance is weak and society is weak. If the stress of climate change on these weak societies causes some of them to collapse, it opens a window for terrorists."

Population change is another important factor in sparking instability, Farrell continued. World population is projected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, with growth largely occurring in Asia and Africa. In these regions, the combination of climate change and population growth could produce a potent—and potentially lethal—mix. According to the three retired generals at the meeting, the military should be mindful of these situations when planning its strategies. "We believe the smart thing to do is to plan now: look at the extremes of what can happen and be prepared for those extremes," said Kern, who argued that the military should "take advantage of this time that is available to us to reduce…extremes to something…manageable."

Drafted by Sean Peoples.


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