In an earlier post on this topic, I discussed the security implications of our growing national and global dependence on oil and the relationship between policies to curb oil consumption and policies to mitigate climate change. In this post, I’ll discuss how climate change itself quickly became a national security priority worthy of Congressional attention.
The story begins in February of this year, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a summary report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (part of the second volume of the Fourth Assessment Report) in which they concluded “with high confidence that anthropogenic warming over the last three decades has had a discernable influence on many physical and biological systems.”
That conclusion – or rather the confidence with which the conclusion was asserted – caught some policymakers by surprise. Indeed, before the release of the report, many had mistakenly assumed that the impacts of climate change would not be observable with any certainty for at least another generation.
But the report did not stop there. While the conclusions about an observable human “fingerprint” arguably caused the greatest stir, the projections of future impacts were in many ways more disturbing.
Among experts, it is widely known that the impacts of climate change will not be distributed uniformly. In part, these differences are due to accidents of geography; in part, they depend on a region’s human capacity to adapt. Taken together, these factors imply that Africa – whose underlying climate and social institutions would be fragile even in the absence of change – will bear a disproportionate share of the global burden.
Numerical models used to study the regional impacts of climate change confirm this conclusion. The IPCC projects that by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa will be exposed to an increase in water stress due to climate change. Water scarcity – a major problem in itself – will also exacerbate other problems, like food security. In fact, the report projects that in some African countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could decrease by up to 50% by 2020.
By design or not, only a week after the IPCC released its conclusions, the not-for-profit CNA Corporation released a study – backed by a panel of 11 retired three and four-star admirals and generals – tying the impacts of climate change directly to U.S. national security. The authors of that report cautioned that climate change could act as a “threat multiplier” in some of the most volatile regions of the world. In particular, they argued that many of the impacts projected by the IPCC (decreased food production, greater incidence of disease, water stress) would perturb fragile societies in ways that would enhance the potential for internal conflict, extremism and authoritarianism.
Because the U.S. military could be called upon to intervene in such situations, the CNA panel recommended, among other things, that climate issues be fully integrated into future national security and defense planning efforts.
Under different circumstances, these reports would have been quickly forgotten. But with climate change an increasingly visible issue on Capitol Hill, the recommendations soon found their way into the hands of Congressional authorizers. As the CNA report was being circulated, Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NB) introduced legislation that would require the impacts of climate change to be considered in future U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. By early May, Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence had added language from the original bill to H.R. 2082, a larger bill authorizing spending for all intelligence-related agencies.
The GOP tried to strip the climate provisions during markup, but the effort failed on a party-line vote of 9-11. On the floor, an amendment to strip the climate language put forth by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), the ranking member of the Select Intelligence Committee, met a similar fate. On May 11th, the House voted 230-185 to pass the legislation. Democrats later added similar provisions in the defense authorization bill, H.R. 1585, which passed the House on May 17th by an even more impressive margin, 397-27. As early as this week, the Senate is expected to debate a similar measure in their version of the 2008 defense authorization bill.
Whether or not these developments will change the way we think about, anticipate or respond to climate change is hard to say, but regardless, it’s clear that these issues are being considered in ways that would have been unimaginable a year before. The CNA authors state (rightly, in my view) that climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global issues that must be confronted in an integrated fashion. As daunting as this may be, the good news is that the solution to one problem can help solve the others, if we make the effort to design policies carefully.
Further Reading: The Summary for Policymakers for each of the new IPCC volumes can be found here, and the CNA report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, can be downloaded here. I would also recommend a story in the April 2007 Atlantic called “The Real Roots of Darfur.”