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An Military Examination of Climate Change

In perusing the web, I stumbled on this very interesting paper on climate change.  While most media coverage is either strongly supportive of the concept of climate change or very strongly against the concept, this research paper comes at the issue from a completely different viewpoint than any that I have seen before.  
 
The paper entitled "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" was released back in 2007 by the CNA Corporation, a Virginia-based "nonprofit institute that conducts in-depth, independent research and analysis" and has done so for more than 60 years.  That's pretty much boiler-plate think-tank talk.  The report was an attempt to answer the call made by President George W. Bush in his 2007 State of the Union address where he stated that help was needed "...to confront the serious challenge of global climate change...".
 
What is different about this report are the names that appear on the Advisory Board.  There are 11 retired military personnel named; four Generals, one Lieutenant General, four Admirals and two Vice Admirals.  I'd say that's pretty unusual.  Each of these men brought decades of first-hand experience in various parts of the world to the table, in fact, the section of the report entitled "Regional Impacts of Climate Change" are divided into subsections that are entitled "Voice of Experience" where each member offers his perspective, from his military experience, on the potential impacts of climate change on the national security of the United States over the next 30 to 40 years in an attempt to allow the military to adapt to the world's new reality.  When one thinks of national security, climate change is probably one of the last things that most people associate with any type of "code red" alert.
 
Here is a selection from the introduction to the report, directed to the readers:
 
"During our decades of experience in the U.S. military, we have addressed many national security challenges, from containment and deterrence of the Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War to terrorism and extremism in recent years.
 
Global climate change presents a new and very different type of national security challenge.
 
Over many months and meetings, we met with some of the world’s leading climate scientists, business leaders, and others studying climate change. We viewed their work through the lens of our military experience as warfighters, planners, and leaders. Our discussions have been lively, informative, and very sobering...
 
The nature and pace of climate changes being observed today and the consequences projected by the consensus scientific opinion are grave and pose equally grave implications for our national security. Moving beyond the arguments of cause and effect, it is important that the U.S. military begin planning to address these potentially devastating effects. The consequences of climate change can affect the organization, training, equipping, and planning of the military services. The U.S. military has a clear obligation to determine the potential impacts of climate change on its ability to execute its missions in support of national security objectives.
 
Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States. Accordingly, it is appropriate to start now to help mitigate the severity of some of these emergent challenges. The decision to act should be made soon in order to plan prudently for the nation’s security. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay."
 
Whether or not you believe in the concept of global climate change (and I happen to), it is certainly sobering to read these words from a group of men who have had "their fingers on the button".
 
On to the report.
 
The report was structured to answer 3 main questions:
 
1.) What conditions are climate changes likely to produce around the world that would represent security risks to the United States?
 
2.)  What are the ways in which these conditions may affect America’s national security interests?
 
3.) What actions should the nation take to address the national security consequences of climate change?
 
The Advisory Board acknowledges that there is some discussion among scientists as to the veracity of climate change and its extent. They state that the potential consequences of climate change are so significant, that now is the time to assess which courses of action, if any, should be taken, particularly from a military security standpoint.  They also acknowledge that as military leaders, their perspective is different from that of the science community, the media and government policymakers since they look at the issue of climate change through a range of estimates and degree of risk that is involved.  The Board feels that it is most unwise to wait until the scientific community has reached 100 percent certainty in its climate change projections before any action is taken.  They refer to "low probability/high consequence" events, those events that occur rarely but have devastating effects when they do (think tornados or Hurricane Katrina); the Board is concerned that with inaction, climate change could well become a "high probability/high consequence" event.
 
Since the report hits too many points for this posting, I'll try to pick out a few salient points.  
 
The first issue that concerns the Board is how climate change will affect access to supplies of fresh water.  Climate change could impact rainfall and snowfall distribution and amount and will impact glacial melt rates, a source of drinking water for 40 percent of the world's population.  This is of particular concern in the Middle East (which, by extension, means that it is of particular concern to the United States and its security) where there is already geopolitical tension over already scarce fresh water supplies.  It is predicted that large parts of the India, Pakistan, South Africa and China will experience water shortages by 2025, even without the impact of climate change, because of accelerated glacial melting in the Himalayas.  It is those areas in the world that have marginal water supplies at the present time that will be most impacted by climate change and it is likely that these impending shortages will ultimately lead to military conflict over access to potable water.  Unfortunately, many of the areas of the world that are experiencing and will experience tension over access to fresh water are already breeding grounds for terrorism.
 
Climate change will also impact the spread of infectious, water-borne diseases.  The spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria are already being noted and in the jet-age, diseases that were once eradicated in certain areas of the world, can become newly endemic, particularly as climates change.  As well, a growing lack of clean water in heavily populated countries can lead to the spread of diseases including cholera.
 
Changing climate will also impact humans that live either near coastlines or near sea level.  Rising sea level will result in the contamination of fresh water wells with saline water, affecting the ability of the land to sustain life of any kind.  One need look no further than Bangladesh where a great proportion of the country's residents live at or near sea level.  Rising sea level in Bangladesh has already resulted in the loss of productive arable land and has threatened the nation's food supply.  Damage and destruction of infrastructure is projected to displace tens of millions of people in Bangladesh by the end of the century.  The experience of Hurricane Katrina showed that even the United States is not immune from the impact of severe weather-related events that may be connected to global climate change.   While developed nations may have the resources to cope with world-wide sea level changes, poorer nations will most likely find themselves at the mercy of nature.
 
If the availability of fresh water and access to productive land are threatened, mass migrations could result and it is often these mass migrations that lead to geopolitical conflict, particularly where migrations take place across international boundaries.   The report estimates that by 2025, 40 percent of the world's population will be living in countries that are experiencing chronic shortages of water.  This alone will force populations to resettle in areas that can sustain a reasonable quality of life.  As well, the need for emergency assistance by military forces around the world may be required by nations that are unable to support themselves during a climate-related crisis.  This will impact those nations like the United States that are able to supply manpower and materiel in times of need.  To date, the cause of the world's many conflicts has not been directly associated with shortages of potable water, however, that issue could well create a future military conflict that will require intervention by outside nations.  One need look no further than the water issues facing both Israel and Jordan where increasing water scarcity is impacting government policy.  As well, the issue of scarcity of arable land has been the cause of unrest in areas of Africa and South Asia over the past few decades and this may well increase as the pressure of changing climate impacts agricultural output.
 
The report then goes on to assess the impact of climate change to five regions of the world - Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere.  The report assesses the specific threats to each region and how the indirect impact of climate change in other regions will impact that particular region (i.e. migration from Africa to Europe).  I don't wish to go into the specifics of each region in this posting but may touch on them in a future posting.
 
The last section in the report is entitled "Direct Impacts on Military Systems, Infrastructure and Operations".  This is where the military looks at the impact of climate change on its own operations.  I'll summarize their findings briefly.
 
The authors, being militarily inclined, are concerned about the operation of military equipment in extreme environmental conditions since this can impact the working life of equipment; for example, a stormier North Atlantic would increase the risk of equipment fatigue, hamper flight operations and lengthen trans-Atlantic travel time.  When major storms approach the east coast of the United States, military ships leave port and flight operations are moved inland.  Increasing temperatures in the Middle East would affect the ability of flight crews on aircraft carriers to launch aircraft because of crew fatigue.  Some United States military bases around the world are located very close to sea level; these will have to either be moved inland or decommissioned.  Either scenario will cost the already strapped American taxpayers dearly.
 
The military is particularly concerned about operations in the Arctic.  Climate changes in the Arctic are magnified and this has resulted in much greater increases in overall average temperature than any other part of the world.  A Navy study from 2001 concluded that an Arctic that was ice-free would require more vigilant monitoring.  Increased year-round accessibility will bring with it increased international competition for the resources in the area including oil, natural gas and minerals; this could lead to escalating military tensions.  The Russian Federation has already made it quite clear that they regard the area up to the North Pole as sovereign Russian territory and have been charting the seabed to discover the extent of their Lomonosov shelf.  This has led to increased surveillance by both Canadian and United States Coast Guard and military.  As year-round ice becomes a thing of the past, the cost of increased military oversight and vigilance in the Arctic region will stretch existing resources.
 
While the concept of global climate change is dismissed by a significant number of politicians, lay people and scientists, it is most interesting to see that the United States military has spent some time examining the repercussions and impact of climate change on its operations and on national security.  In conclusion, I'd like to quote from the final section of the report:
 
Recommendation 2:
 
The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.
 
All agencies involved with climate science, treaty negotiations, energy research, economic policy, and national security should participate in an interagency process to develop a deliberate policy to reduce future risk to national security from climate change.
 
Actions fall into two main categories: mitigating climate change to the extent possible by setting targets for long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to those effects that cannot be mitigated. Since this is a global problem, it requires a global solution with multiple relevant instruments of government contributing.
 
Recommendation 3:
 
The U.S. should commit to global partner- ships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts.
 
Some of the nations predicted to be most affected by climate change are those with the least capacity to adapt or cope. This is especially true in Africa, which is becoming an increasingly important source of U.S. oil and gas imports. Already suffering tension and stress resulting from weak governance and thin margins of survival due to food and water shortages, Africa would be yet further challenged by climate change. 
 
That sounds like a rather pragmatic approach to global climate change.

Click HERE to read more of Glen Asher's columns.

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