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Global Warring

Don't militarize the climate debate.

For years, advocates of climate-change legislation have struggled to find a sales pitch that will sway even the most hardened of skeptics. Polar bears, green jobs, urgent pleas to think of the grandkids … none of them have quite done the trick. But recently, a new argument has come to the fore: the national security case for cutting carbon emissions. At a hearing in October, Senate Democrats invited military leaders and strategists to speak about both the dangers of America’s oil dependency and the potential for rising temperatures to create new security threats around the globe. Dennis McGinn, a retired Navy vice admiral, conjured up a not-too-distant future in which increased drought, flooding, and crop failures ravaged areas like sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh, fueling violent conflict. Meanwhile, he said, the U.S. military could find itself handcuffed by its over-reliance on oil if prices start spiking. “Continuing the United States’ pattern of energy usage in a business-as-usual manner,” McGinn warned, “creates an unacceptably high threat level.”

It’s a claim that resonates far and wide. In August, a poll by the American Security Project reported that most Americans agreed that global warming could “destabilize developing countries, creating the conditions for war and a breeding ground for terrorism.” A recent survey in Arkansas--hardly a hotbed of green sentiment--found that, when the security case was placed alongside the conservative mantra that capping carbon amounts to a giant tax, people favored cutting emissions 55 percent to 37 percent. The argument has even wooed conservatives who wouldn’t be caught dead at an Earth Day rally. Republican Lindsey Graham recently explained his interest in climate legislation by arguing that global warming could “make the world even a much more dangerous place. It’s not just me saying it. A bunch of generals are saying it.” The message is so effective that Democrats are counting on it to frame the climate debate: John Kerry, who has been working the security angle in private conversations with swing senators, was made lead sponsor of the Senate cap-and-trade bill for just this reason.

But even if climate-bill backers have finally found the potent argument they’ve been searching for, that still leaves the substantive issue: To what extent is global warming a national security concern for the United States? Right now, the Pentagon, the Armed Forces, and other security experts are trying to figure out just what dire consequences a warming planet might bring. And, as it turns out, the answers are more complex than the simple sales pitch might suggest.


The security argument comes in a variety of strains, but perhaps the one most commonly invoked has little to do with climate change per se--it involves oil. Military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, have become increasingly alarmed about their reliance on crude, not least because fuel convoys are ripe targets for attacks. “All the military departments are looking very specifically at how they take advantage of energy efficiency and lighten the burden of what our troops need to take to the front,” says Sherri Goodman, the former deputy under secretary of defense for environmental security during the Clinton administration. Then there’s the interrelated claim that America’s gas-guzzling ways help bankroll extremism in the Middle East. While this is a powerful reason to use less oil, it also only goes partway in making the case for tackling global warming--which, after all, requires an array of additional steps like zeroing out carbon emissions from coal plants and halting deforestation.

The more compelling climate-specific fear is the possibility that severe global-warming impacts could provoke conflicts around the world. In Sudan, there’s already evidence that warmer ocean temperatures have wreaked havoc on rainfall patterns, creating drought that pushed farmers in Darfur into competition for arable land with Arab pastoralists, with bloody results. That wasn’t the primary cause of the genocide there--the Khartoum government deserves the vast share of blame--but it’s an example of how ecological changes can tip tense situations over the brink. And climate science offers ample warning that similar disruptions could unfold across the globe. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius or more (which is precisely what climate campaigners are hoping to avert) would likely lead to more frequent droughts and crop failures across Africa, Asia, and Latin America; batter coastal regions with flooding and stronger storm surges; and aid the spread of infectious diseases. Glaciers in the Himalayas are expected to melt rapidly in the coming decades, shriveling up a key water source that Pakistan relies on for most of its crops, possibly setting the stage for conflict over rivers in Kashmir. And military experts have warned that greater resource scarcity could cause fragile governments to topple, pointing to events like the food shortages that helped lead to the fall of governments in Ethiopia and Niger in the 1970s. As a 2007 CNA report by a panel of retired military leaders describes, such failed states are ripe for terrorist havens and can succumb to the sort of anarchic violence that leads to calls for U.S. military intervention, as occurred in Somalia in the 1990s.

These dystopian forecasts can sometimes get oversold--as they did in the ’90s, when Robert Kaplan’s influential Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Anarchy,” roiled Washington with its sensationalist vision of one African country after another disintegrating under the stress of dwindling water supplies and eroding cropland. In the years that followed Kaplan’s piece, many academics began poking holes in his thesis, pointing out that just as many, if not more, countries prove surprisingly resilient in the face of grave environmental stresses. And, as with Darfur, resources are only one risk factor; people themselves still have to decide to go to war. “You don’t want to frame it as a deterministic thing, that it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket,” says Geoff Dabelko, who directs the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. Still, Dabelko says, it’s understandable why the Pentagon is uneasy. “Look at Bangladesh. If sea levels rise and forty percent of the country is lost to inundation, where do those millions go? They’re going to India. Now we can say that’s not our problem, but there are two nuclear-armed states in the region. So, from the military’s perspective of risk analysis, if there’s a prospect of trouble, they’ve got to pay attention.”

Of course, whether many of these constitute a direct threat to U.S. security interests all depends on one’s view of what, exactly, U.S. security interests are--and what one thinks the military’s role in the world should be. At the moment, Pentagon planners are operating on the assumption that the military, whether it likes it or not, will be called on frequently to assist in a wide variety of climate-related crises, even ones that are primarily humanitarian in nature--as was the case in 2004 after a tsunami struck Indonesia. Yet not all experts think the implications of global warming should be defined so narrowly. “When you start talking about environmental issues this way, it brings the idea that you’re talking primarily about military solutions,” says Daniel Deudney, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins. “And, when we’re talking about climate, that’s not really where the most important actions are.”

It’s also possible that, in a few places, the security implications of climate change have been exaggerated. It’s not uncommon to see news stories hyping the notion that melting Arctic ice could create a mad scramble between the United States, Russia, Norway, and Canada for minerals and shipping lanes. Yet, as a Carnegie study of the subject found, “Overblown press coverage of Arctic security issues appears to be in inverse relationship to security realities. There are no large geopolitical fault lines, and no resource wars are anticipated.”

Likewise, for years, politicians have cautioned that ebbing water supplies could lead to an outbreak of “water wars.” But, experts point out, states have rarely gone to war over water--it’s much more common for them to cooperate and figure out ways to share resources, as with the Nile Basin Initiative in Africa. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute points out that the bigger concern should be violence within nations over water, which erupts quite frequently--in Ethiopia, between herdsmen, or in China, between local farmers wielding bombs. “More attention has been paid to those international disputes, because everyone’s worried about war,” says Gleick. “Yet those sub-national conflicts are much harder to address--and fewer resources have gone toward them.”

So framing climate change strictly as a national security problem for the United States may be an overly cramped way to think about the issue--even if it sells politically. Unchecked global warming will likely produce a lot of human misery around the world, but not all of that misery will create military threats. Then again, as retired General Gordon Sullivan wrote in the CNA report, there are also too many plausible high-risk scenarios to dismiss entirely. “We never have 100 percent certainty,” he observed. “If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.” In other words, we’d be nuts to sit back, let carbon emissions keep rising, and hope it all turns out okay.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor of The New Republic.