May 22nd, 2007 <-- by Scott Barrett -->

Is climate change a national security threat? A month ago, a panel of retired military leaders said that it was. Two weeks ago, the Congress agreed and asked for a National Intelligence Estimate to be made of the national security implications of climate change. The Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, endorsed this suggestion. So have environmentalists. Even Al Gore, when testifying before the Senate on climate change last March, used war analogies to provoke the Senate into action.

Recalling the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, Congressman Edward Markey, head of the new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, told the Congress last week:

“Drought caused famine. Famine caused food relief. Food relief caused warlords to fight over it. The warlords’ fighting caused the U.S. to intervene, and 19 U.S. fighting men were killed.”

Will climate change cause U.S. soldiers to die? Will it have implications for U.S. national security more broadly? Possibly. But these are hardly the main reasons we should be concerned about climate change. Linking climate change to national security seems more like an attempt to exploit the culture of fear that has gripped the U.S. Must climate change threaten our security for us to take the issue seriously? Are we no longer capable as a nation of doing difficult things simply because they need to be done, for our benefit and the benefit of the world?

We should have a climate change policy for environmental and development reasons. We should have a foreign policy for climate change because we cannot address this problem unilaterally; we need the whole world to work with us. Most importantly, the world cannot meet this challenge without U.S. leadership. The world needs us. Are not these reasons enough for us to act?

To make climate change a national security issue is to invite an inappropriate response. Rather than encourage the U.S. to work with other countries, it will make us want to withdraw further into our own insecurity. If our aim, as Markey implies, should be to act so as to protect U.S. soldiers, then perhaps the U.S. should consider other policy options than reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps we should install a military base in Africa not only to fight terrorism and prevent failed states but to defend the U.S. from threats posed by people affected by climate change—fight them “over there” before they come “over here.”

The threat to the U.S. is not that people affected by climate change will attack U.S. soldiers. The threat is that, should the U.S. fail to address an environmental issue that will have global consequences, other countries will cease to look to the U.S. for leadership. Worse, climate change is a problem of our own making—the U.S. has added more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than any other state. We are thus partly responsible for causing climate change, and should we fail to address this threat other states will have reason to be aggrieved. Finally, failure to act will diminish the character of our own nation.

Addressing climate change is much harder than was the challenge 45 years ago of putting a man on the moon. Just as President John F. Kennedy said then, however, we should meet this challenge not because it is easy but because it is hard, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….”

Achieving President Kennedy’s goal made the U.S. a source of inspiration for the rest of the world. It also ennobled us as a nation. There were national security implications to this effort, but that was not the reason President Kennedy urged us to put a man on the moon. It is not the reason the U.S. should have a climate change policy.


  1. Caspar Henderson Says:

    As Rick says in the movie Casablanca says “I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that”.

    Maybe the American people will rise above parochial obsessions to face the challenges of climate change. They have done the right thing in the past, “having” as Winston Churchill first observed “first exhausted every other possibility”.

    Meanwhile the signs are not great. At the meeting in Bangkok earlier this month to launch IPCC working group Group 3 summary report on mitigation of climate change, a reference to a “global” carbon market became merely an “international” market, and a reference to the importance of “regulatory and financial incentives and international co-operation” in climate policy was removed altogether, with approval for the effectiveness of “voluntary agreements” inserted instead.

    And the U.S press continues to insist that a 0.12% reduction in annual global economic growth rate (projected this year and next to be 4.9%) is too high a price to pay for avoiding climate catastrophe.

  2. Mark D. Drapeau Says:

    There have been some interesting, balanced commentaries on this topic lately – specifically, framing climate change as a reasonable national security issue (despite other legitimate reasons for being concerned). For further reading, please see writings by Drs. Mark D. Drapeau and Bryan K. Mignone at:

    “Climate of Subtle Conflict” in the Washington Times

    “Culture, Conflict, and Climate” at

    Recent “guest blogs” at science journalist Chris Mooney’s “The Intersection”

  3. Richard Rood Says:

    In my Winter 2007 class on climate change, I asked my students to pose and discuss issues that would motivate the United States to take action on climate change. The answer that rose to the top was – national security related to international instability. Ultimately we made a list and the top three were … realization that there is money to be made (or risk of loss), and legacy to children and grandchildren. With the exception of water resources, issues that seem more intuitively related to climate change, for instance, heat waves, agriculture, were far down the list.

    With some analysis, the fact that agriculture and public health were down the list makes sense. In the United States there are straightforward ways to adapt to these changes. Plus, we will have to adapt to these no matter what. We have, by presumption, adaptive capacity.

    We do have many other relations and interests in the world. Some of these are with countries who have less adaptive capacity. Instability in these countries, no matter the cause, motivate actions of the United States. This year, already, the heat wave in Pakistan has raised concerns that have, at least in the press, been mentioned in the same sentence with civil unrest. It is a fact that international instability will be a major factor in determining the US’s participation in approaches to the problems of climate change. This will be true whether or not the attribution of a particular event is correctly or incorrectly attributed to climate change.

    This brings forward yet another reason for the US to have a visible and active climate change policy. In the absence of such a policy, the US, as the historical major polluter, will be a natural target of hostility. With a climate change policy that takes responsibility for our pollution and that extends our adaptive capacity around the world, we set a better foundation for our position in the world. That is, climate policy will have a role in national security.

    It is difficult to define the relationship between, say, national security and climate change. There is one, and it will change for reasons that are not necessarily related to facts. It is more organic than a relationship of cause and effect.

Leave a Reply