Will Climate Change become National Security Issue before It’s Too Late?

A significant list of serious national security figures (along with some not so serious people like Joe Lieberman, James Woolsey, and Frank Wisner) have released a letter calling for immediate focus on climate change.

The letter is not perfect. It still treats climate change as a force that will destabilize parts of the world, causing more headaches for us, rather than a force that will kill people directly.

Countries least able to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change will suffer the most, but the resulting crises will quickly become a burden on U.S. priorities as well. Both the Department of Defense and the State Department have identified climate change as a serious risk to American security and an agent of instability.Without precautionary measures, climate change impacts abroad could spur mass migrations, influence civil conflict and ultimately lead to a more unpredictable world. In fact, we may already be seeing signs of this as vulnerable communities in some of the most fragile and conflict-ridden states are increasingly displaced by floods, droughts and other natural disasters. Protecting U.S. interests under these conditions would progressively exhaust American military, diplomatic and development resources as we struggle to meet growing demands for emergency international engagement.

It is in our national interest to confront the risk that climate change in vulnerable regions presents to American security. We must offer adaptive solutions to communities currently facing climate-driven displacement, support disaster risk reduction measures and help mitigate potential future impacts through sustainable food, water and energy systems. Advancing stability in the face of climate change threats will promote resilient communities, reliable governance and dependable access to critical resources.

It still treats climate change as something that happens over there, not in New York or the midwest. It still treats climate change as a secondary issue.

Nor does it situate climate change against other threats, which pretty quickly shows that not only is climate change a more immediate threat than al Qaeda or China, but that its effects create conditions that foster the former.

But it’s a start.

Until it becomes consensus that climate change is a national security threat, and must be treated with the same seriousness and intolerance with failure as any other national security threat, we’re not going to a damn thing about it.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

25 replies
  1. JTMinIA says:

    I can see the point that declaring climate change a threat of some sort would be helpful in trying to muster support for reversing it, but I’m not so sure that getting it declared a national-security threat is the way to go. Think about how the federal gov’t approaches such threats: incompetently and in secret. Is that really what you want for climate change?

  2. phred says:

    “Both the Department of Defense and the State Department have identified climate change as a serious risk to American security and an agent of instability.”

    Meanwhile, elsewhere in the State Department the wheels continue turning on the road to the Keystone Pipeline:

    http://news.firedoglake.com/2013/03/01/state-depatment-clears-keystone-pipeline-for-approval/

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/02/keystone-xl-pipeline-report-activists-scientists

  3. P J Evans says:

    @phred:
    Does the State Department actually have environmental experts who are competent to review Keystone XL, or are they (as I suspect) just taking the word of others?

  4. x174 says:

    the emphasis on stability in other parts of the world described in the excerpt is so out of sync with our prevailing modus operandi to destabilize countries far and wide (cf. the continent of Africa) that it reads to me more as a sub rosa justification to “bring democracy” to other parts of the world that need “our help.”

    assuming that the statements in the above excerpt are sincere, the problem with them is that they myopically see it as a NATIONAL security problem than as a GLOBAL sustainability problem. To miscategorize a global problem as a national problem and a sustainability/viability problem as a security problem appears to be misguided on two conceptual levels at once.

    The fundamental misunderstandings are nicely encapsulated in the first two sentences of each paragraph:

    (1)”Countries least able to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change will suffer the most, but the resulting crises will quickly become a burden on U.S. priorities as well.”

    Clearly the authors don’t understand the global nature of the issue nor to they seem to realize that the massive Midwestern drought which began last year has not ended (more than 50% of the us is still in drought, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/). The authors display their ignorance of the global problem and their obliviousness to the current state of the role that climate change is presently playing in the us (as is consistent with climatological predictions that have been made for decades).

    (2)”It is in our national interest to confront the risk that climate change in vulnerable regions presents to American security.”

    Referring to the situation as a “risk” in “vulnerable regions” re-emphasizes the lack of understanding of the present crisis and its planetary scale (cf. Hansen et al. PNAS 2012 “Perception of climate change” (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/07/30/1205276109.abstract). This sentence also suffers from a creepy, belligerent tone.

    The odd diction is what leads me to think that the excerpt is but a ruse to justify more military intervention: “burden on US priorities.” “risk to American security,” “agent of instability,” “precautionary measures,” “protecting us interests,” “it is our national interest to confront the risks,” “support disaster risk reduction measures,” and “access to critical resources”. Sounds to me like they are trying to figure out how to integrate armed drone missile technology into securing the us from the threat of “foreign” climate change.

    Moronic, to say the least.

    The utter lack of specificity as to what the problem is and how it should be dealt with is the other worrisome aspect of this peculiar attempt to shoehorn a global environmental/economic issue into a militaristic/national security issue.

    But when all you’ve got is a drone, everything looks like targets to be eliminated preemptively.

  5. phred says:

    @P J Evans: I have no idea.

    Presumably competent people should be able to read the literature and draw appropriate conclusions. I suspect however, that the problem may be due to how they defined the problem to evaluate. From what I could tell from the Guardian article I linked, the State Department started from an assumption that the tar sands would be developed. Then they looked at trade-offs between how that oil would be moved.

    The better way to review the problem would be looking at trade-offs between tar sands oil and renewable energy development.

  6. JohnT says:

    @x174: That is their strategy. They view the world in two parts: the core and the gap. The core are the countries based on globalization, and the gap are the rest. And it just so happens that the majority of the people countries in the gap have brown skin.

    Here’s a picture of the core and the gap

    Explained here

  7. What Constitution? says:

    How to monetize it. It’s, by and large, the 70’s mantra that “solar power won’t work until they figure out how to put a meter on the sun.” Here today, many of the noted signatories on this alarmist call to action are much less interested in what the source of the problem may be than in whether they can figure out how to sell something to “defend” against it’s impacts on the U.S. There’s nothing subtle about “the resulting crises” from failure to mitigate climate change “will quickly become a burden on US priorities” — unless, of course, we sell more Abrams tanks, weapons systems and population control technologies to make sure those discomfitted masses don’t get in our faces here. These people have had twelve years of blank checks by invoking “terra, be afraid” — is there a next boogeyman to keep this gravy train rolling? You bet, and it’s hungry angry masses looking at American prosperity.

    I agree that climate change does present global challenges, but those snake oil salesmen offering swords and very expensive band-aids aren’t the answer, the answers must lie in addressing the causes at least as much as the profit opportunities from capitulation.

  8. der says:

    Looks like Centrists read Professional Left blogs. Unfortunately for those Republicans their party has been taken over by climate deniers and the problems and risks they want policymakers to address are ones Jim Inhofe and a large enough minority in the Senate will stop from ever coming up in the “World’s Most Deliberative Body”.

    – “If we have difficulty figuring out how to deal with immigration today, look at the prospects for the glacial retreats in the Andes. The glaciers are not doing well… If that starts to go away, we will have millions upon millions of southern neighbors hungry, thirsty, with crops failing and looking for some place in the world they can go,” Woolsey said.

    Seems one of their “mitigating” solutions is to figure out how to keep our darker skinned southern neighbors in their places by what? Shipping them water and food? While their feet blister from the burning ground they stand on?

    – “We must offer adaptive solutions to communities currently facing climate-driven displacement, support disaster risk reduction measures and help mitigate potential future impacts through sustainable food, water and energy systems. Advancing stability in the face of climate change threats will promote resilient communities, reliable governance and dependable access to critical resources.”

    Solutions of 1/2 measures to salve the conscious of the 1/2 of the country that may be concerned. Sigh, agree it can help to push the WH to some action other than the empty promises of hollow words. Though I don’t see anything being done until the pictures of empty stares from hollow eyes come from the core in our part of the world.

    Talk, talk, talk.

  9. P J Evans says:

    @What Constitution?:
    The congresscritter from Alabama claiming that solar and wind power won’t work in his state is one that comes to mind. (Maybe Alabama is orbiting over the dark side of the moon?)
    If Germany can have useful solar power, in an area that isn’t noted for massive amounts of sun, then it ought to work in most of the US.

  10. P J Evans says:

    @phred:
    In other words, they took the decision as a given, and had to come up with reasoning to justify it. (I kind of thought so.)

  11. emptywheel says:

    @phred: Right, exactly.

    But I think that’s part of how they’re defining this, which I tried to get at with my post. Climate change is something happened over THERE, not here. And there’s no connection between decisions like the pipeline and the problems it causes, right?

  12. TarheelDem says:

    If climate change gets framed as a national security issue, it just becomes an excuse for the national security establishments to ask for more toys. So that when climate change happens they can keep the folks affected from (1) migrating to the US and (2) retaliating against the polluters.

    It needs the urgency of a national security issue without becoming a war on climate change victims.

  13. Peterr says:

    In fact, we may already be seeing signs of this as vulnerable communities in some of the most fragile and conflict-ridden states are increasingly displaced by floods, droughts and other natural disasters.

    Like Kansas.

    The vulnerable suffer while the Far Right Conservatives attack the Merely Conservatives in battles that have laid waste the legislature, not to mention social service agencies in particular and governmental services more generally. Add in floods from two years ago and the ongoing drought . . .

  14. pdaly says:

    Well, at least the government thought ahead to fund bioweapons research labs which are sprouting like poisonous mushrooms across the country including inside population dense cities…

    It’s still a “Go” for plans to build one in Boston:
    http://www.boston.com/whitecoatnotes/2013/03/01/boston-university-biolab-wins-state-approval-its-environmental-review/ApDfPMneurorY1uDt4sxJO/story.html

    It’s a good thing Boston is at sea level, because with the rising tides expected with climate change, ooh, heh, wait a minute!

  15. noble seef says:

    Lately, “risk” means the one percent’s claim on money, power and resources not our health, water and food.

    And yes, it is too late.

  16. x174 says:

    @JohnT: Thanks for the interesting feedback. There is a good (but a bit blurry) map of the activities of which Africom is presently involved at the counterpunch website by Spinney in an article called “Neo-imperialism and the arrogance of ignorance”:
    http://www.counterpunch.org/wp-content/dropzone/2013/03/Africom-ISR-bases.jpg
    The Pentagon’s New Map (2003) seems rather dated, and the 2003 article by Barnett is prescient but dated: The arbitrariness of the “Disconnectedness defines danger” criterion reeks of hubris and tyranny. Interesting nevertheless, such as the reason why defeating Saddaam is good is because “the resulting long-term military commitment will finally force America to deal with the entire Gap as a strategic threat environment.”

    Priceless. The tyrannical mindset at work circa 2003.

  17. Orestes Ippeau says:

    @P J Evans: Given it’s left to State, to me that suggests the priorities are oriented toward how and where the import and export fits within trade treaty obligations, and that any environmental concerns arise as an incident of those.

  18. phred says:

    @emptywheel: Exactly. I agree entirely.

    They are decoupling things that are connected for fundamentally corporate profit driven reasons. So you can have the same State Department pretend on the one hand that climate change matters if it provides an excuse for the ever-growing MIC to continue its expansion (in order to meet the needs of the threat to stability caused by climate change), while simultaneously on the other hand the same State Department can pretend that climate change doesn’t matter in order to approve a pipeline that will be hugely profitable to those whose business model fosters climate change.

    There is a word for all of this: fascism.

  19. phred says:

    @pdaly: Not to worry pdaly… those are aquatic bioweapons (one if by land, two if by sea) so the site is cleverly chosen to deploy the bioweapons when the sea level reaches a certain height ; )

  20. geoschmidt says:

    Anything that don’t improve the bottom line for the petro industry, is dead on arrival. So to start with, something as basic as conserving energy, would signal a change of “heart”, but since they ain’t no heart, it’s not likely, and the climat isn’t a worry for the guys who live in special enclosed cities, with tropical plants and everything right in the middle of Antartica if they wanted, the rest of the planet can roast, what would they care?

    I drove hummers at my job, damned, if that isn’t the ugliest, most uncomfortable, hard to park thing ever! You got to have some ego to want that one.

  21. Heron says:

    No. Sorry, but we’re boned :(. The next two centuries or so are going to be rough. My only consolation is that smug deniers like the South Park crew will live long enough to have someone say “I told you so, but you just didn’t listen” to their face. At least we’ll always have irony.

  22. Heron says:

    @phred: I don’t know if I’d call it fascism -that’s a specific claim about having an intimate connection to the “soul” of a “People”, as well as a view of brutal violence and demagoguery as a “purer” form of politics than debate and democracy, and a blurring of the lines between military, government, and industry- but I’d certainly call it “greed”, “corruption”, “dereliction of duty”, “violation of oath of office” and “grossly, destructively irresponsible”. It sort of reminds me of those old Warner Brothers’ cartoons where the forest animals are talking about how humanity killed itself off through war. In the 40s and 50s, they had nightmares about the last two men dying in the attempt to kill each other; it seems much more likely now that the last human may die of starvation sitting beside a fire made of useless green paper.

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