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Climate change and national securityThe U.S. military prepares for the coming conflicts triggered by climate change

Published 9 September 2010

The popular debate surrounding “global warming” is rife with emotion and has paralyzed U.S. policymakers; military planners, however, remain divorced from the emotional content of the topic, looking at possible future scenarios and conducting planning to address the associated challenges and threats arising from sharp changes in climate

As Pakistan continues to struggle with flood devastation, U.S. national security experts are considering the long-term effects of the disaster. Among the concerns are the Pakistan government’s stability, opportunism by extremist groups providing relief to flood victims, and the impact on the U.S. war effort in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S. forces depend on smooth supply lines through Pakistan.

CDR Michael Baker, U.S. Navy, who is currently International Affairs Fellow in Residence at the Council of Foreign Relations, writes that the case of Pakistan reflects how natural disasters can weigh on U.S. national security considerations. Interest in these types of contingencies is such that the U.S. Navy recently conducted a gaming exercise at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, to study scenarios in which the Navy might have to support U.S. or international relief efforts to help maintain regional and global stability. In each scenario, a climate-induced disaster (or disasters) triggered catastrophic death tolls, migration, and panic affecting regional or global security and spurring the UN Security Council to issue a humanitarian response resolution. “This was the first time the Navy had conducted a gaming exercise to determine how to respond to climate-induced challenges,” baker writes. This unique effort brought together climate scientists, water experts, health practitioners, logisticians, diplomats, aid workers, and military officers to think through possible response options.

The exercise follows a real world trend of Navy support for humanitarian aid missions and responses to natural disasters at home and abroad. These natural disasters are what the Navy calls “irregular challenges” — risks emanating from a host of problems that may affect not only state security but also human security and that do not necessarily involve manmade threats.

Baker writes that catastrophic floods or increasing desertification can pose severe challenges for local populations and national governments and may carry regional or even global ramifications. What is more, if these irregular challenges go unchecked, they could lead to large-scale international conflict as states compete for dwindling resources, populations migrate en masse, or governments seek to deflect domestic pressure onto neighbors.

With this in mind, the U.S. Navy is contemplating partnerships with other militaries, especially where maritime crime, epidemics, or other disasters are likely to cause destabilization. The goal is to develop a system for collectively addressing irregular challenges such as tsunamis and earthquakes, epidemics, or narcotics and human trafficking — challenges that strain governments and local populations alike, often without respecting international borders. President George W. Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy stressed that responding to natural disasters was important for national security. President Barack Obama’s first National Security Strategy and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) go a step further, with the former making climate change a national security priority and the latter pointing to the potential for dangerous conflict that could arise from the effects of climate change.

Baker concludes:

The popular debate surrounding “global warming” is rife with emotion and has paralyzed U.S. policymakers. Military planners, however, remain divorced from the emotional content of the topic, looking at possible future scenarios and conducting planning to address the associated challenges and threats arising from sharp changes in climate.

Creating military partnerships years before a crisis allows countries to collectively respond when a catastrophe occurs and offers a reasonable avenue for political and cultural dialogue crucial to avoiding inter-state conflict. This is true for a variety of “irregular challenges,” including the possible risks due to climate change.