Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What kinds of security impacts will climate change produce?

The LA Times has an article that is somewhat skeptical about the climate change/security nexus. This skepticism comes in the form of quotes from two experts, both commenting on the Center for Naval Analysis's just-released report on how climate change poses a "threat multiplier" for national security:

Other experts who were not involved in the report said national security concerns, though real, were probably not the most significant threats posed by global warming.

"Everything's a national security issue these days," said Scott Barrett, director of the International Policy Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It's a bit of a marketing ploy."


"Global warming's impacts on natural resources and climate systems may create the fiercest battle our world has ever seen," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the newly formed House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Markey will introduce legislation to fund climate change planning by the Department of Defense.

Those battles may force the demise of weak governments in the developing world, creating power vacuums for terrorist groups to exploit, the report found.

Deteriorating conditions in Africa and the Middle East could prompt a wave of migration to Europe. As a result, the report said, some of America's most dependable allies could find themselves too distracted to participate in international coalitions or other efforts aimed at preventing regional conflicts.

Other experts called those risks unlikely. Climate change will certainly lead to more failed states, but it is not clear that the result would be an increase in terrorism, said Steve Weber, director of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley.

The Sept. 11 hijackers "came from Saudi Arabia, not the floodplains of Bangladesh," he said.

He also downplayed the notion that migration spurred by climate change would be an important factor in U.S.-European relations.

But Weber agreed with the report's authors that the opening of shipping channels through the now-frozen Arctic could become a significant source of conflict.

"There aren't well-specified and agreed-on rules as to who owns what," he said. Russia, which has lots of land above the Arctic Circle, and China, which does not, could have very different views about how to address access to new waterways there. "There could be some pretty big fights over that," he said.

Full disclosure: I've got a bit of a dog in this fight, since Steve Weber and I have collaborated professionally on the topic of climate change and security. The article here positions him as something of skeptic on the connections between climate change and security. But I think a more accurate account of Weber's position is that he is trying to shift some of the emphases of the report. Construed narrowly, I agree with Weber's comments.

For example, it's not clear to me that migration spurred by climate change would be an important factor in U.S.-European relations. On the other hand, it is much more likely to be a factor in, say, US-Mexican relations. (The reporter just asked the wrong question.) Likewise, I agree with Weber that the security threat associated with climate change is not primarily terrorism-related. The direct security impacts of climate change are much more likely to be (a) humanitarian catastrophes; and (b) resource competition between states. These latter may in turn produce an environment more conducive to terrorism, but that's a second-order (or, actually, fifth order) effect.

What exactly are the security threats associated with climate change? With a nod to our friends over at ARC, I would suggest that it might be useful to identify four categories of security risks associated climate change.

First are the direct impacts of climate change on the military. These are the primary focus of the CNA report: how will climate change directly effect our military forces in terms both of capacity and of new demands? On the one hand, if it's hotter and drier in places where we fight, what does that mean for supply? What kinds of diseases should our medics be prepared to deal with in various regions? On the other hand, might new areas and regions become objects of military contestation (e.g. the Arctic), and what does that imply for military requirements?

Second, how will states or their institutions be threatened as a direct result of climate change -- e.g. flooding that destroys a national capital? Will there be borders that cannot be defended? These threats are real but I would argue relatively remote in time, compared to the next two categories of threat.

Third are climate change-related threats to the well-being of civilian populations. Starting in the nineteenth century, modern states increasingly defined themselves around their ability not just to defend their borders and maintain civil order, but also by their ability to deliver basic services to the population, notably public health and various other kinds of "social welfare." Even though states have in many cases backed off the notion that they should be the sole providers of these services, instead choosing to outsource these services to private sector companies or nonprofits, citizens of modern states still look to the state to ensure the delivery of these services, and a failure to do so is likely to compromise the ability of a state to command the allegiance of its citizens. There is considerable evidence that climate change will severely stress many countries' ability to provide this kind of population security. The BRICS may be particularly vulnerable on this count, since their rising geopolitical status may increase citizen demand for these services just as climate change begins to compromise the ability to deliver these services. "Population security" is perhaps the key form of security that will be threatened by climate change.

Fourth, are the climate change-related threats to critical infrastructure, notably electricity generation and distribution, telecommunications, water supply, food production and distribution, heating and cooling, and transportation systems. The impact of climate change on these systems varies a lot, with agriculture and water supplies particularly vulnerable. The key analytical point about these systems, however, is not necessarily that they are directly vulnerable to climate change, but rather that these are the systems that provide a society and a country with the resiliency for dealing with any kind of major shock, be it weather-related, military, or economic. The countries that are already weak in these dimensions of security are the ones that are least likely to be able to deal with the inevitably non-linear climate shocks. Looking at the countries that are already weak across multiple vital systems therefore provides the best clue for divining which countries are most vulnerable to climate change. The form that this vulnerability will take is likely to be humanitarian disaster, however.

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