Climate Wars

By Keith Kloor
May 3, 2010 10:15 PMNov 20, 2019 4:56 AM


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UPDATE:Be sure to check out the comment thread, where a number of top environmental security experts weigh in. I bet you you think this is going to be a continuation of last week's discussion. Nah. This week, I'll be talking to scholars and experts who study the linkages between climate change, energy, and security. The shorthand for that nexus is climate security or energy security. Or, put another way: global warming = war. In 2007, think tanks were just starting to define the climate/energy/security nexus. In 2008, intelligence experts sounded the alarm. In 2009, the CIA opened a climate change shop. Earlier this year, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review declared:

Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.

These are important developments that deserve more attention. So far, public debate (which is minimal) seems to be shaped mostly by advocacy campaigns and political talking points. In reality, the linkages between climate change, energy and national security are complex. Remember that impenetrable counterinsurgency powerpoint slide that recently bounced around the blogosphere? I bet there's an equivalent one somewhere under lock and key that has a geopolitical diagram of the climate security threat. What follows is a Q & A with two environmental security experts that seeks to clarify some of the core issues that have come to define climate security and energy security. Geoff Dabelko is Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatam House, in London, and the author of the recent book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map. (Disclosure: Several months ago, I reviewedGlobal Warring for Nature.) Two questions for Geoff Dabelko: Q: Last September you wrote in the journal Climatic Change that, ""˜climate security' is in danger of becoming merely a political argument that understates the complexity of climate's security challenges." This recent commercial by seems to bear out your concern. What is the danger of oversimplifying the climate security issue for political reasons? GD: Distilling complex topics into compelling sound bites demands (over)simplification and big leaps from problem to solution. But after grabbing people's attention, what argument are you really making? Careful analysis of climate and security linkages must inform advocacy efforts and policy responses. But we must realize that a wide range of players will interpret this analysis for their own ends. Environmentalists should not use climate security just because it "polls well" or because military officers make effective communicators. In the 1990s, environmental security was proffered as the national security issue of the 21st century, but when that proved not to be the case, the blowback was fatal. The security concerns related to climate and energy range well beyond typical climate advocacy goals. For example, the Pentagon is focused on clear tactical vulnerabilities such as IEDs targeting fuel re-supply missions, and strategic vulnerabilities, including dependence on unstable regimes for fuel. Both concerns have led DOD to prioritize fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, which can help reduce carbon emissions but are not direct arguments for passing a cap and trade scheme. Similarly, climate change could act as a "threat multiplier" or "conflict accelerant" in regions of the world already destabilized by poverty, scarcity, and/or poor governance. While climate change may contribute to this instability, it should not be framed as a new type of conflict or a certain path to catastrophe. For example, not all "climate migration" will be destabilizing or even negative. Migration has been a rational adaptation strategy in the past and will likely continue to be one in a warmer future. Yet advocates are often tempted to paint a picture of hundreds of millions of migrants flowing South to North. Such false precision in the face of tremendous uncertainty undercuts the legitimacy of the problem. The bottom line: Climate change poses a range of security challenges, some of which must be met by security actors and others by civilians. Those efforts must be based on precise analysis, even when fitting it on a bumper sticker. Q: Energy security is a buzz phrase that has made its way into the political discourse. It'll probably be invoked as a central plank of the U.S. Senate's climate bill, whenever that is unveiled. How can the U.S. best achieve energy security? GD: Energy security is not a new label but an enduring one that gained salience in the oil crises of the 1970s. It is now surging past climate change as the political frame for the energy and climate efforts on the Hill and at the White House. Energy security has unfortunately been conflated with the call to "end our dependence on foreign oil." While politically appealing, this slogan is practically impossible, given the nature of the global oil market, and probably undesirable and unnecessary--Canada, our friendly neighbor, is actually our largest supplier of oil. The challenge is to channel the strong support for reducing trade with fragile or hostile suppliers into support for measures that increase efficiency, cut demand, and transition to alternative fuel sources. Making these demand-side reductions--not just changing suppliers--is a key step to achieving energy security. It's politically more difficult, but ultimately necessary. We also need the software as well as the hardware. Achieving energy security requires an honest accounting of subsidies and regulatory incentives and disincentives for the full portfolio of existing and future energy technologies and sources. Alternatives to fossil fuels remain at a tremendous disadvantage despite recent changes for the better. Massive public and private investment in technologies must be accompanied by revolutions of equal importance in regulatory and behavior change arenas. Energy security depends on addressing the current and future energy infrastructure vulnerabilities, including equipment failure, extreme weather events, long-term environmental change (i.e., sea-level rise/surges in the Gulf or pipelines built on thawing permafrost), regulatory inflexibility, and terrorist attacks. Three questions for Cleo Paskal: Q:What's the big collision coming up at the intersection of climate change and U.S. national security?CP: Environmental disruptions (caused by climate change but also other environmental change factors, such as depletion of groundwater) are increasingly threatening domestic U.S. security across the board, including economically, socially, politically and militarily.

Economic security is being undermined by, for example, water scarcity affecting urban development, agricultural communities and energy security. Costly extreme events, such as the 'snowmageddons' of February 2010, don't help either. These uncertainties can, in turn, affect other operating costs, such as insurance, as economic systems try to figure out ways of factoring in the disruptions.

Socially, U.S. security is likely to be increasingly affected by internal migration caused by one-off extreme events, such as hurricanes, as well as by the gradual collapse of some of the regional economies that will be badly hit by environmental disruptions. In many regions the scars from Katrina are still festering.

Politically, failed response to disasters can have enormous political repercussions. According to Matthew Dowd, President George Bush's pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 campaign:

"Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn't matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn't matter. P.R.? It didn't matter. Travel? It didn't matter. I knew when Katrina-I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We're done."

From a traditional security perspective, the U.S. military is not properly trained, staffed or equipped to handle extreme or multiple domestic environmental disasters, as was made evident during Katrina. And, according to the National Intelligence Council over 30 U.S. military installations are already threatened by rising sea levels.

Q: Can you talk about the geopolitical concerns raised by China's pursuit of energy security?

CP: The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is very focused on, and often very effective at, securing resources it deems essential to national prosperity and security. It sees prosperity and security as interlinked because without much prosperity (or the the hope of prosperity), Chinese citizens may be less acquiescent to their authoritarian government.

One of the keys to that prosperity is a reliable flow of energy. Given the relative lack of domestic hydrocarbons, that means the Chinese government has had to try to lock in a broad range of energy partners. Typically, when possible China will offer country-to-country package deals incorporate long-term energy supplies. So, for example, in Africa, China might supply infrastructure, military hardware, training and international diplomatic cover in exchange for a reliable flow of oil.

This form of 'nationalistic capitalism'

can mean by-passing international markets.

Geopolitically, this can mean the scything off of large economic and political blocks from the 'West', and include high level (including the U.N. Security Council) diplomatic - and possibly even strategic - backing for nations such as Sudan, Iran and Venezuela.

Q: If you looked at climate change purely through a geopolitical lens, what should the U.S. be worried about most today?

CP: That the U.S. will see a gradual (and in some cases sudden) erosion of economic, social and infrastructural stability that will drain the nation and leave it increasingly less able to cope with coming challenges. Stimulus package spending is a good example. This was an opportunity to shore up the U.S.'s physical infrastructure and defenses. However little, if any, assessments were made to see if the new builds were placed in locations that would be compromised by environmental change. As a result, instead of reinforcing stability, you can end up with infrastructure that pulls people into areas that are going to become increasingly dangerous - for example along some vulnerable coasts. There are a lot of challenges coming our way, but there is also a lot of low hanging fruit. Little things that can be done that will dramatically increase security -- such as ensuring that environmental impact assessments include not only an installation's impact on the environment, but also a changing environment's impact on the installation. We can do this. We have to.


There is a whole suite of climate security issues that deserve greater clarity and discussion. I will explore more of them in depth as the week progresses. Meanwhile, thanks to Geoff and Cleo for kickstarting the discussion.

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