Military assessments of climate change

In his scrupulously evenhanded book What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate, Greg Craven makes reference to four different assessments of climate change conducted by organizations with a link to the American military. All conclude that climate change is a serious problem, and that actions must be taken to mitigate it.

The first is the 2008 National Intelligence Assessment, drafted by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. While the report itself is classified, the chairman said that climate change could disrupt US access to raw materials, create millions of refugees, and cause water shortages and damage from melting permafrost.

Another is a 2003 Pentagon study: An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security: Imagining the Unthinkable. It considers a worst-case but plausible scenario, and concludes that abrupt climate change could destabilize the geopolitical environment:

In short, while the US itself will be relatively better off and with more adaptive capacity, it will find itself in a world where Europe will be struggling internally, large number so [sic] refugees washing up on its shores and Asia in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.

It also argues that “with inadequate preparation, the result [of abrupt climate change] could be a significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth’s environment.”

The third report is from the Center for Naval Analyses. Their “blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines” produced the report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. It calls climate change “potentially devastating” and advises that the risks to national security will “almost certainly” get worse if mitigation action is delayed. It also stresses how we don’t require 100% certainty about the precise seriousness of a threat before it starts making sense to address it.

The last report was drafted by two national security think tanks: the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security. Their 2007 report is titled: The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change. Their team included the head of the National Academy of Sciences, one Nobel laureate economist, a former CIA director, a former presidential chief of staff, climatologists, and others. They concluded that current projections from climate models are “too conservative” and that “at higher ranges of the [warming] spectrum, chaos awaits.” The authors conclude that an effective response would have to occur in less than a decade “in order to have any chance” of preventing irreversible disaster.”

The only fair conclusion that it seems possible to reach about these reports is that they have been ignored. If American policy-makers and members of the general public accepted these conclusions – and interpreted them with the seriousness accorded to matters of national security – we would not be seeing so much doddering around before meaningful action is taken. While the military does have an incentive to scare people, since doing so likely increases their funding, Craven is probably right to claim that the overall bias of these organizations is towards economic strength rather than environmental protection. That, and the calibre of the individuals associated with these reports, seems to provide good reason for taking them seriously.

Note that the issue of climate change and security has been discussed here previously.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

26 thoughts on “Military assessments of climate change”

  1. Pentagon to rank global warming as destabilising force

    US defence review says military planners should factor climate change into long term strategy

    Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent, Sunday 31 January 2010 16.48 GMT

    The Pentagon will for the first time rank global warming as a destabilising force, adding fuel to conflict and putting US troops at risk around the world, in a major strategy review to be presented to Congress tomorrow. The quadrennial defence review, prepared by the Pentagon to update Congress on its security vision, will direct military planners to keep track of the latest climate science, and to factor global warming into their long term strategic planning.

    “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world,” said a draft of the review seen by the Guardian.

    Heatwaves and freak storms could put increasing demand on the US military to respond to humanitarian crises or natural disaster. But troops could feel the effects of climate change even more directly, the draft says.

    More than 30 US bases are threatened by rising sea levels. It ordered the Pentagon to review the risks posed to installations, and to combat troops by a potential increase in severe heatwaves and fires.

  2. February 1, 2010, 2:41 pm
    Growing Pentagon Focus on Energy and Climate

    The Pentagon released its Quadrennial Defense Review on Monday, a wide-ranging report laying out rising priorities for keeping the peace and, when needed, waging war. For the first time, the report — at the request of lawmakers — considered the significance of climate change for national security, both as a potential source of conflict and a factor in military operations.

    A core conclusion:

    “Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

  3. Canadian Forces preparing for more disasters caused by climate change: report

    An internal military document obtained by Le Devoir suggests the Canadian Forces may, over the coming years, be forced to intervene in global conflicts caused by climate change.

    The 176-page report warns of “frequent military interventions” directly or indirectly due to climate change.

    The 2009 report said growing incidents of extreme weather will require military intervention to assist the victims of natural disasters.

    It said those interventions will range widely, from humanitarian rescue efforts to stabilization missions.

    In the foreword, Major-General Stuart Beare, Chief of Force Development for the military, wrote that the report would serve as a “reference document.”

    In all, the report provides an overview of a wide range of potential environmental security issues, from geopolitical changes to technological developments.

    An entire chapter was devoted to climate change.

    The report was approved in January 2009 by Chief of the Defence Staff in Ottawa.

  4. “The only fair conclusion that it seems possible to reach about these reports is that they have been ignored. ”

    Perhaps the sad truth is the US executive has quite weak authority over the business lobby on domestic issues. This certainly contrasts with their relative freedom to engage in foreign relations, specifically military projects.

    Maybe the USA should concentrate on imposing a carbon regime in the rest of the world, and Russia can concentrate on imposing cap and trade on the USA.

  5. Part of the problem may be that the military sees climate change as a partisan issue and fears that expressing public concern about it will seem like inappropriate interference in politics.

    A somewhat similar issue may be missile defence. The military can judge better than anyone whether it is actually possible to do effectively. At the same time, making public statements on the matter may seem inappropriately political.

    Of course, the armed forces can use fears of both ballistic missiles and climate change as an excuse for more funding. As such, there is something of a conflict of interest.

  6. Implementing missile defence is an agressive tactic – any effective benefit comes at the cost of increasing risks to other states. There is in fact a corresponding asymmetry of risk involved in mitigating climate change – but it runs in the other direction: not mitigating climate change puts weak states at risk more than the United States.

  7. I don’t think the last part of that is necessarily true. States like Bangladesh may well suffer more deaths as a result of climate change, but it is states like the United States, Germany, and Japan that really have the most to lose.

    Right now, the citizens of those states are very prosperous and secure by global standards. Climate change could alter their situation, to the point where they have much more in common with Bangladeshis.

  8. Climate Change Spy vs. Spy?

    The CIA has a special climate change task force, but as we’ve reported here, they don’t want anyone to know about it. Now the science advisory board to the Department of Defense is recommending that the government create yet another new intelligence group dedicated to climate change.

    A new report from the Defense Science Board, a committee set up to advise to the Secretary of Defense, calls for the creation of a unit within the DOD that would “concentrate on the effects of climate change on political and economic developments and their implications for U.S. national security.” This new intelligence program would commission the existing CIA task force on climate to “produce an assessment of regional climate change hot spots.”

  9. Science Panel Warns Spy Agencies Are in the Dark on Risks from Warming

    For years, there’s been a building chorus of warnings on the looming prospect of “climate conflict” and “global warring” that might be set off as greenhouse-driven warming disrupts longstanding weather patterns in already-turbulent parts of the world (think sub-Saharan Africa) or rising seas dislocate coastal populations (think Bangladesh).

    Some studies have found relationships between natural climate cycles and conflict. But a recent University of Colorado study, while finding a link between periods of high temperatures and pulses of regional violence in East Africa, also concludes that other social and political factors still, by far, are the dominant drivers of unrest and violence. (The image at right, using data from that paper, maps the relationship over several decades in East Africa between unusual heat, on the horizontal axis, and conflict rates on the vertical. See the caption for details.)

  10. But the area he’s just as worried about, said Obama, “is how climate change could end up having profound national security implications in poorer countries. We’re obviously concerned about drought in California or hurricanes and floods along our coastlines and the possibility of more powerful storms or more severe droughts. All of those things are bread-and-butter issues that touch on American families. But when you start seeing how these shifts can displace people — entire countries can be finding themselves unable to feed themselves and the potential incidence of conflict that arises out of that — that gets your attention. There’s a reason why the quadrennial defense review — [which] the secretary of defense and the Joints Chiefs of Staff work on — identified climate change as one of our most significant national security problems. It’s not just the actual disasters that might arise, it is the accumulating stresses that are placed on a lot of different countries and the possibility of war, conflict, refugees, displacement that arise from a changing climate.

  11. A gentleman farmer from Fort Lawn, S.C., Linder speaks with a drawl that does little to soften the blade of his critical intelligence. He also speaks with the precision of a man used to giving orders and having them followed. Before taking up his post at Africom, he educated himself on the countless problems facing the continent. “I went around Washington to three-letter agencies and asked people how they saw Africa. Some saw Africa through a lens of AIDS, others through climate change.” All of these require serious attention, he said. “On time-lapse satellite imagery, you literally can watch the desert moving south.”

  12. Administrative bipolar disorder
    One arm of the Trump administration thinks climate change is a security threat
    Another thinks it is a hoax

    A report published on January 26th by the Department of Defence (DoD) found that more than half of the 3,500 sites surveyed are already reporting climate-related problems (see map). Droughts are leading to water shortages, heatwaves are causing some live-fire exercises to be cancelled and shifting wind patterns are disrupting aircraft sorties.

    Critical outposts abroad are similarly vulnerable. Twenty years from now a new $1bn radar installed on the Marshall Islands, which helps to shield America and its allies from nuclear-tipped missiles launched by North Korea, could be under water. Diego Garcia, a staging post on an Indian Ocean atoll crucial for operations in the Persian Gulf, may be submerged too.

  13. Rising waters could cause irretrievable loss of infrastructure and even whole communities along coastlines, CSIS warns. “For example, modelling shows the potential loss of significant parts of British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces to rising sea levels and flooding.”

    Taking steps to lessen the severity of flood and weather risks may be impractical, and buying insurance or rebuilding after a calamity will simply be too expensive in some cases, the brief says.

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