Clear and Present Climate Blindness

This Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen essay, attacking the “threat inflation” in foreign affairs, is generating a lot of buzz. DDay wrote about it here, and Paul Pillar has a worthwhile addition here. At one level, I’m positively thrilled that this sentiment is being expressed in the bible of the foreign policy establishment, Foreign Affairs.

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post–Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks. A 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 69 percent of members of the Council on Foreign Relations believed that for the United States at that moment, the world was either as dangerous as or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Similarly, in 2008, the Center for American Progress surveyed more than 100 foreign policy experts and found that 70 percent of them believed that the world was becoming more dangerous. Perhaps more than any other idea, this belief shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs.

There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

But there’s just one problem with their argument. “It is simply wrong.”

This is an over 5,000-word article, 16 pages long.

And while Zenko and Cohen discuss non-military threats–primarily health and economics and cybersecurity–they [update (see below)–almost] never discuss climate change.

That’s largely a reflection of the paradigm of foreign policy. After all, climate change doesn’t pose a unique, comparative threat to the US. It’s a real, pressing threat to the entire globe at once.

But that doesn’t mean the US–and every other country–is as safe as Zenko and Cohen claim. It just means the risk–one that transcends boundaries and nationalities, though is exacerbated by the latter–doesn’t fit the framework foreign policy wonks work under. And until the foreign policy community gets that climate change should be today’s key foreign policy issue–one that will disrupt the current paradigm of international relations, sure, but as such (particularly given all the very legitimate points Zenko and Cohen make about other threats) really ought to represent an opportunity as well as an imperative.

Update: I apologize to Zenko and Cohen: They do too mention climate change: once, in the following passage.

Indeed, the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less attention than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks—all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking. [my emphasis]

My point still stands though: Climate change is not a catalyst to severe challenges, it is in fact, itself, a challenge (and also contributes to instability and migration and food insecurity which will be catalysts to insecurity).

So I apologize to Zenko and Cohen for accusing them of being “blind,” though I still think the claim that no real threats face the US to be “simply wrong.” And thanks to Cohen for alerting me of my initial error.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. Robert Snell says:

    Thanks for providing this post. So few of the blogs I visit put this issue on their radar even though this is THE greatest threat to life on this planet and there should be a sense of urgency voiced by all people that are concerned for the well being of future generation including their children and grandchildren. Many people just don’t want to believe in science and unfortunately they are in charge of science.

  2. Peterr says:

    The DOD is not as blind as these two when it comes to the dangers of climate change. From the NYT in Aug 2009:

    The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

    Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

    Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

    The Defense Science Board at the DOD commissioned a task force report on the implications of climate change, which was delivered last October, entitled “Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security”. From the executive summary (pdf pp. 13-14):

    Climate change is likely to have the greatest impact on security through its indirect effects on conflict and vulnerability. These effects span the spectrum from basic necessities of livelihood to social conflict, including protests, strikes, riots, intercommunal violence, and conflict between nations. . . .


    Climate change has the potential for significant impacts on all three of the basic elements of national and international security — defense, diplomacy, and economics.

    There’s lots more — 175 pages worth — at the link above.

    Marcy, the FA article is mostly behind a paywall. Does it reference this DOD report at all?

  3. klynn says:

    I was just talking with a friend about how Russia’s FP is understanding this issue and has partnered with a Danish firm in the development of an Active House. The next step in production is an off grid green house for local sustainable food production, an Active house that is hurricane safe, a floating house for towns near coastal areas that are going to be threatened with global warming and small quick build (click-build) Active houses (like a Katrina cottage but smaller and self-sustainable energy-wise with a grey water system and a water purification system and incinerator toilet. This is to address emergency semi-to permanent housing after a catastrophic event. This house could potentially get everyone in Haiti in a safe small structure and improve the health conditions there.

    Very forward thinking. Amazing potential for job stimulus. Amazing economic stimulus. Smart FP direction. Totally focused on solving global concerns which is a positive sum FP.

    A good FP makes FP improvements that end up making domestic policy better.

  4. klynn says:

    I would welcome a Cold War — a Green Cold War where we compete against those making green FP decisions and government investments that better the global community and local communities.

    Can you imagine in lieu of an arms race, we push policy towards a green race? And, like our push to build up our armaments which we then dismantled years later, we push to build up our green technology with our best scientists and engineers?

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: No, it quite literally does not mention climate change at all. I found that particularly creepy given that it discusses things–like health–that will be significantly affected by CC.

  6. emptywheel says:

    Note, I’ve updated the post–Cohen tweeted me to note thta they do mention climate change (I’ve included the passage). I still think it is mistaken to say the US doesn’t face any threat. But they have not left it out entirely.

  7. Peterr says:

    @emptywheel: in the quotation you added above, I’m struck by the part where they say that climate change and other less sexy problems “are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking.”

    If that one mention of climate change, within a list of various other issues, is all the attention they saw fit to give it, that kind of proves both your point and theirs. They certainly gave it short shrift.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Precisely. And don’t treat it like a direct danger. Which, if you measure danger by towns destroyed, it clearly already is.

  9. jo6pac says:

    I think the reason for just mentioning this is a problem and not really going into what it means for Amerika is we all know if there is another nation that has something we need because of CC change will just invade and take what ever. The nations to the south and north should think about that.

    The other thing that bothers me with this type of thinking is if they kill the little blue sphere hurling though space they won’t have anyone to be their slaves. This very short side by the masters;)

    Yes I love what Denmark is doing, they should be off clean coal and oil by 2020. Good for them.

  10. klynn says:


    It would be interesting to look at how “the race to the Moon” shaped our FP years ago and how the race to the Moon and the Cold War interacted.

    A green “race” would be very interesting…

  11. klynn says:


    Many have looked at the interaction and role of the race to the Moon irt the Cold War. Kennedy’s purpose of Apollo was an effort to demonstrate the superiority of a free society and democratic way of life to that of our communist adversaries…Many argue that Apollo’s success was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Some project that Reagan’s success with SDI was the threat of success of SDI, due to Apollo, as seen by the Soviets.

    I think the “demonstration” is being turned and the race for a “new kind of superiority” is being waged by the Russians with their partnership with Denmark. And, this is the superiority race to win because it is not about a new frontier of superiority, it’s about survival.

    We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are 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, and the others, too.

    – JFK

    Hmmm…could not state this today…

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