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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 08/11/2009

Climate Change & National Security: A Tough Sell

By Andrew Freedman

* Heat to Depart, Storms Possible: Full Forecast *

Marine landing.jpg
Marine amphibious landing vehicle participating in a recent exercise in the Pacific. (Defense Department photo)

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.

Somalia.jpg
Somali migrants in a disabled skiff receive assistance from U.S. Sailors aboard guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57) in the Gulf of Aden May 24, 2009. The skiff, originally ferrying 52 passengers, was spotted in distress by helicopter pilots assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 45 while patrolling the area. Lake Champlain is deployed as part of the Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Barker/Released)

"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.

By Andrew Freedman  | August 11, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Government, Policy  
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Comments

Great assessment, Andrew. I noticed in recent weeks the switch in rhetoric from folks like John Kerry. He referenced climate change affecting the war in Afghanistan even. Very interesting new angle, but I agree with your thoughts above. Thanks! -Matt

Posted by: MattRogers | August 11, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Andrew:
I thoughly enjoyed reading your column today and for once, find myself agreeing with most of what you say.

I agree completely when you say: "We also tend to prefer immediate benefits, rather than the prospect of future rewards". As I have suggested in the past,this has always been a giant hurdle for this issue. Irregardless of personal beliefs, a pragmatist would understand that the masses in society desire instant gratification or measure of success for any difficult pursuit and to criticize or condemn opposing viewpoint only alienates.

Recent poling data tends to present more bad news for this issue:

http://www.lvrj.com/news/52828402.html

Posted by: AugustaJim | August 11, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, ""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.

What? A war game concluded that "... and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change ...".

I have participated in war games. Granted, it was over 25 years ago, but I can assure you they NEVER validated scientific theory! That isn't even their purpose. Can you seek clarification from the original author on that sentence? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and I am certain that it is factually inaccurate.

Also, were you able to get MIT to make public the information that I requested?

Have you considered writing a column about the MET's & CRU's refusal to release the raw temperature data and methods used (re said raw data) by Dr. Jones? I think it would make a fascinating column! Can you imagine the ripples if/when Dr. Jones' papers are shown to be in error? How big would that be? How many papers reference Jones et al? How many papers would find themselves instantly invalidated if/when Jones et al is found to be in error? You could make a nice chart detailing the papers that directly reference and/or build upon Jones et al. And then add to that chart the papers that reference those papers. Oh my goodness! It would be huge!

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 11, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I sincerely hope that none of your readers or Mr. Broder's readers believe that military war games have validated climate change. That is absolutely not true. Please feel free to contact the Department of Defense if you think I am wrong.

As far as running war games that take into consideration varying "climate change" scenarios (which does not mean that man is the primary driver of the "climate change") is a responsible course of action for the military to pursue. They attempt to take into consideration as many potential variables and then make plans based upon those potential variables/scenarios. It is what they do. It is what we expect them to do. It is not an endorsement of the scientific theory. It is simply prudent, "just in case" planning.

Heck, even I have suggested a course of action just in case I am wrong about catastrophic man made global warming being a huge scam. I have proposed the same thing that Dr. Hansen advocates! Even though I think it is a complete scam, I propose that we replace existing coal fired power plants with nuclear power plants. But that does not mean that I believe in the current theory of catastrophic man made global warming. I do not. But I am willing to take certain precautions, just in case I am wrong. It is only prudent.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 11, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

According to Mr. Q last week, "global warming, calamitous, predictions have not panned out .... wrong again". He points to the June near zero globally averaged satellite based temperature anomalies to prove it. On the basis of this reasoning, I gather it's safe to assume that July's value of .41 deg warming indicates that the predictions have panned out.

In reality, of course, no single month nor any single area is representative of the long term average changes that might be occurring globally. The June near zero and the July .41 are equally meaningless in this context

There is a nice article today on this subject. As reported there, "The information (.41 deg for July) is not some liberal hothouse like Greenpeace, but two of the most well-known and respected climate change semi-skeptics, John Christy and Roy Spencer."


Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 11, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Tracton wrote, "He points to the June near zero globally averaged satellite based temperature anomalies to prove it."

No, Dr. Tracton. I linked to a graphical representation of the last 30 years of global temperature as measured by satellite. The EXACT SAME GRAPH that I have been linking to for what, OVER A YEAR now?

I was not linking to one month. I am sorry that is all you saw when you looked at a graph of 30 years. Try not to be so short sighted and narrowly focused Dr. Tracton.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 11, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Would this chart have been more to your liking Dr. Tracton?

Or perhaps this one?

Or this one?

Pick whichever one you think best disproves the dire, catastrophic, "We are all going to die!", man made, global warming claims. It doesn't matter to me.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 11, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q: Military planners are factoring climate change into their assessments because, as you noted, it is prudent to anticipate future threats/scenarios.

However, contrary to your views, the military and intelligence agencies have in fact recognized the theory of man made climate change, and they have based some of their assessments in that body of scientific evidence. Here is a link to congressional testimony by Adm. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, in which he discusses the IPCC's findings.

Concern over man made climate change motivated Congress to require that a National Intelligence Estimate on climate change-related national security challenges be completed. Natural climate variability, while a key issue globally, was not the impetus for that particular study.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | August 11, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Historically, weather has frequently been the “tipping point” in the outcome of military operations. Among the many notable examples are the success of D-Day invasion in 1944 (respite in storminess allowing the invasion to proceed) and the failure in the 13th century of the Mongol invasion of Japan (Mongolian fleet destroyed by a typhoon).

It is well recognized in U.S. (but not only the U.S.) military doctrine that current and forecastable weather (limited to about one week in advance) can be employed tactically to the advantage of one side and /or to the disadvantage of an adversary. The same is true in longer term planning in regard to knowledge of local climate in regions of potential operations. Indeed there is active research in what is referred to as “smart climatology” which explicitly includes accounting for climate variations over time and space (example).

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 11, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

New NPR broadcast on climate and national security: http://www.onpointradio.org/2009/08/climate-change-and-national-security

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | August 11, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

Okay, I don't get what point you think you are making. In one sentence you write, "Concern over man made climate change motivated Congress to require that a National Intelligence Estimate on climate change-related national security challenges be completed."

You state that Congress mandated it.

But you also write, "However, contrary to your views, the military and intelligence agencies have in fact recognized the theory of man made climate change, and they have based some of their assessments in that body of scientific evidence."

Duh. Congress required them to do it.

It is as if you want to say, "Look! Even the military and the intelligence recognize climate change and the IPCC! Climate change must be real and man made!", while simultaneously admitting that Congress told them to do it.

What did you expect them to do? Ignore the IPCC? Like that would go over well with our current Congress!!

They simply did what they were told to do. You can't point to that as if it signifies anything more than they are really good at following orders.

And do you really want to point to the intelligence community, so soon after the WMD debacle, to bolster your argument? Speaking of WMD, how did that consensus work out? ;)

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 12, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Since you have repeatedly ignored my MIT question, is it safe to say that I can stop waiting for the public release of the information that I requested? I am shocked! ;)

Why don't you want to discuss this? Don't care to talk about your side hiding the data and methods? I shouldn't wait on an expose on it from you, should I?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 12, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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