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.
So begins the excellent lead story by John Broder in Saturday’s NY Times. This won’t surprise regular readers — indeed, last September I wrote about an unusually savvy new intelligence forecast on global risks “previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst,” which
… envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.
The report … also concludes that one key area of continued U.S. superiority — military power — will “be the least significant” asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because “nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force.”
Thank you George Bush and Dick Cheney and your fellow deniers for delaying action so long as to make such an outcome all but inevitable!
The photo in the article is from Darfur. The NYT notes, “The conflict in southern Sudan, which has killed and displaced tens of thousands of people, is partly a result of drought in Darfur.” A 2007 Atlantic Monthly piece, “The Real Roots of Darfur,” went further, asserting, “The violence in Darfur is usually attributed to ethnic hatred. But global warming may be primarily to blame.”
And we haven’t even warmed 1°C yet! We’re facing more than five times as much warming this century as the last century on our current emissions path. How much conflict and misery will be caused when we have turned one third of the Earth’s inhabited land mass into a Dust Bowl, when sea levels are more than a meter higher, and the oceans are an increasingly hot, acidified dead zone (which is what the second half of the century holds in store when we blow past 550 ppm on route to 850 to 1000 ppm or more)?
The NYT offers this grim scenario:
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.
One military exercise “explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure.”
The UK government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, laid out a similar scenario in a March speech to the government’s Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster. He warned that by 2030, “A ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions,” as the UK’s Guardian put it. The NYT continues:
If the United States does not lead the world in reducing fossil-fuel consumption and thus emissions of global warming gases, proponents of this view say, a series of global environmental, social, political and possibly military crises loom that the nation will urgently have to address.
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.
Lawmakers leading the debate before Congress are only now beginning to make the national security argument for approving the legislation.
Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the climate legislation, said he hoped to sway Senate skeptics by pressing that issue to pass a meaningful bill.
Mr. Kerry said he did not know whether he would succeed but had spoken with 30 undecided senators on the matter.
I do think this is an important argument to make to Senators, many of whom see themselves as historical figures playing on the world stage. Indeed, this is part of the even bigger message that Senators who vote to block the national action — and hence vote to kill any chance of a global deal — will be remembered for condemning the next 50 generations to unimaginable misery and strife.
But as serious as this argument is, it’s equally important not to leave people with the impression that one is arguing global warming is mainly going to impact other countries, and not us. The United States will be directly devastated by climate change if we don’t rapidly reverse emissions trends (see “Intro to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water” and Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year – and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!).
“We will pay for this one way or another,” Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of the Central Command, wrote recently in a report he prepared as a member of a military advisory board on energy and climate at CNA, a private group that does research for the Navy. “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.
“Or we will pay the price later in military terms,” he warned. “And that will involve human lives.”
For more discussion of the kind of wars we might be seeing, albeit for the year 2046, here is a three-part radio series on Climate Wars.
The time to act is yesterday.