Climate Change & National Security: A Tough Sell
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Climate change is rarely featured on the front pages of top U.S. newspapers, such as the Washington Post and New York Times. As a gradually unfolding and large-scale event, often called a 'creeping' story, climate change typically lacks a tangible 'news hook.' Rather than the standard news items such as 'U.S. hostages are freed from North Korea' or 'missing South Carolina governor admits affair,' climate stories tend to be less pressing, more complicated, and have a longer time horizon, which makes them harder to justify as page one fare.
This makes a New York Times story on page A1 of the widely read Sunday edition on August 9 stand out. The story, by Times reporter John M. Broder, examined the potential national security implications of climate change, which is a facet of the climate issue that has been getting more attention at high levels of government.
While the story didn't offer much new information, it did highlight that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as the Obama administration may be turning to national security concerns to bolster their pitch for controversial climate change legislation. The House passed a bill in late June to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, but the Senate has not yet unveiled its version of the legislation, which faces an uphill slog in that chamber. It remains to be seen whether framing climate change as a national security threat will win votes. I am skeptical.
Keep reading for more on the risk of climate change on national security and its impact on policymakers...
The Times story, with the headline "Climate Change Seen as a Threat to U.S. National Security," reported on the Obama administration's growing alarm that by flooding coastlines, causing mass migrations, degrading the ability of lands to sustain large populations, and causing more intense storms, climate change could serve as a destabilizing force, one which the U.S. military may increasingly have to reckon with.
"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 article stated.
This sort of portrayal is not new. Numerous reports have been written on climate change and security issues, including one [PDF] by 11 retired admirals and generals that was published in 2007 by CNA Corp. A book, "Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change," was published on the subject last year.
And in Washington, several Congressional committees have held hearings on climate change and national security, and legislation has spurred the executive branch to include climate change in long-term defense and intelligence planning.
Lawmakers, led by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) and joined by former Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, himself a former Navy secretary, have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill to lobby for support for so-called "cap and trade" climate legislation that would reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. According to the Times, Kerry has met with more than two-dozen wavering colleagues about the need to support such legislation due in part to national security concerns.
"This argument could prove a fulcrum for debate in the Senate next month when it takes up climate and energy legislation passed in June by the House," the article stated.
While the potential is certainly there for national security issues to loom large in Senate debate on climate change legislation, I think there is more evidence to argue for the other side -- that national security concerns will remain at the periphery of this debate for some time to come, and perhaps rightly so.
Despite its considerable merits, the national security argument is unlikely to change many minds in large part because it shares many of the characteristics that make climate change a typical page A14 story rather than A1: it too plays out in a manner that is diffuse, long term, and lacks a sense of immediacy. The links between climate and conflict are rarely, if ever, straightforward. This does not mean that climate change cannot be a key factor, but rather that the interplay of factors that lead to a conflict or humanitarian crisis tend to be quite complex.
There are already many societal and environmental pressures, such as population growth, that are working to exacerbate security concerns in some regions. In addition, there is the matter of the decades-long time lag that exists between emissions reductions and the climate system's response. These issues raise the question of how justified it would be to rest the argument for a climate bill on national security grounds.
As Times reporter and blogger Andrew Revkin wrote yesterday, "Even if the legislation took effect and emissions were curtailed, the world would still see disruptive pressures building in places already facing severe drought and flood risks with or without the added kick from greenhouse warming." Revkin raised the question of whether the prospect of additional climate-related instability relates more to Pentagon and State Department planning than it does to domestic climate legislation.
Furthermore, just as reporters face skepticism from their editors when they try to cover climate stories, Kerry and other elected officials are likely to encounter stiff resistance from their colleagues who are far more concerned with the economic plight of the people they represent than they are about whether the U.S. military will have to conduct more humanitarian interventions in 2050 due in part to climate change-related impacts.
This is not necessarily the lawmakers' fault.
As I've previously reported, social science research has shown that the human mind is hard-wired to prioritize immediate dangers and risks over long-term threats. We also tend to prefer immediate benefits, rather than the prospect of future rewards. Thus, many lawmakers and the constituents who elected them are hesitant to support taking action on climate change now since it could result in economic costs in the short term, despite the evidence that shows that addressing climate change now would reduce future risks.
For others, concerns about environmental and national security calamities may outweigh fears of economic disruption in the near term, and they may also agree with many economists who have said that tackling climate change sooner rather than later could prove to be an economic boon rather than a boondoggle. But they seem to be in the minority, at least in Washington.
The many psychological barriers to action on climate change are spelled out in a new report [PDF] from the American Psychological Association. I suggest that lawmakers read it before they decide that playing the national security card is the best approach to attracting more votes for a plan to address climate change.
| August 11, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, Government, Policy
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