War-related metaphors are now common in the rhetoric of climate change activism. We need a “Manhattan Project” for clean energy, a “Marshall Plan” for green action.

Or maybe, we need just plain war. Think of Al Gore’s first ad in his $300 million Alliance for Climate Protection TV campaign, which flashed images of the Normandy invasion. “We didn’t wait for someone else” to fight, it read.

The Pentagon, it turns out, isn’t waiting this time either, and late last month it finally invaded the climate change debate.

The U.S. national security community made its first high-profile foray, publicly discussing a report, called a National Intelligence Assessment (NIA), before Congress on the many emerging dangers over the next two-dozen years.

The report (pdf), summarized in testimony by Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar, used data available from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and also from other public, open-source science. Fingar pointedly said that “we did not evaluate the science of climate change, per se.”

Projecting forward to 2030, the climate NIA speculates on everything from conflicts over scarce water and food to huge refugee problems that might require U.S. forces to intervene in “extensive and novel” ways.

Fingar also cited the potential for “domestic instability in a number of key states, the opening of new sea lanes and access to raw materials,” in addition to “increases of storms in the Gulf … disruptions in U.S. and Arctic infrastructure, and increases in immigration from resource-scarce regions of the world.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management, declared during the June 25 testimony, “From this day forward, the words ‘climate change’ and ‘national security’ will be forever linked.”

The scary scenarios and man-bites-dog aspect of the news – military intelligence groups under the Bush administration taking climate change seriously – virtually guaranteed widespread coverage. Sure enough, outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal to MSNBC and CNN jumped on the story.

Uncertainty Uncommon in Both War and Climate

Some observers applauded the step forward in climate change discourse and policy but saw it all against a wider political and historical backdrop.

Geoffrey Dabelko

“The US security community has been looking at environment and security links for much longer than the current attention around climate/security linkages would suggest,” Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview. He noted that the research goes back as far as the Reagan administration.

Reporters and analysts now need to focus on concrete planning for places such as Africa, Dabelko said, where the climate NIA predicts acute disasters: “Few in the media are asking questions about how climate/security analysis by the security community might increase the preparedness and resources for better responding to natural disasters.”

Observers also note that the U.S. is just catching up with the rest of the world, and that the Germans and British, for example, have been far ahead on the issue. The security-climate link has been gaining traction in the U.S. only since last year, when the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) released an important study

Led in part by retired General Gordon Sullivan, former Army Chief of Staff, the CNA study was co-authored by a who’s who of high-ranking military brass. Sullivan made a significant point at the time of the study’s release about the way the military takes seriously threats involving probability.

“People are saying they want to be perfectly convinced about climate science projections,” Sullivan said. “But speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

That’s likely music to the ears of many climate scientists, who are constantly at pains to explain to the general public the difficult global warming math.

Which is also to say: the Pentagon has a long history of studying long-term, low-probability threats, such as nuclear weapons proliferation. In principle, that may make intelligence groups temperamentally well-suited to grappling with slippery projections – such as precisely how and when climate change will affect particular regions.

Greenocons and Climate Migrants

Some observers, though, saw politics looming in the background for the intelligence community as it issued the climate NIA. The Iraq WMD intelligence failures, and the deep scar they left, of course persist.

Former Washington Post investigative reporter Ted Gup, who has long covered national security, told The Yale Forum he is skeptical of the climate NIA.

“My gut tells me that while individuals within the intelligence community doubtless have genuine concerns, the current attention doubtless also reflects a degree of political savvy,” Gup, now a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University, wrote in an e-mail. “In a time of increased scrutiny and public diffidence in the intelligence community, it represents the politically correct posture and a welcomed distraction/diversion.”

He also noted that the climate NIA may just be added to a pile of other Pentagon reports: “There are always myriad ongoing studies of every imaginable type and description, but until the President flags it as a true national security matter, I’d say it is interesting but not a radical realization of any imminent threat.”

Recently, former CIA director James Woosley – who reportedly now drives a Prius with a bumper sticker reading, “Bin Laden Hates This Car” – has also started campaigning for climate change action. He’s not alone.

The appearance of such formerly neoconservative, or “necon,” hawks in the environmental movement has spawned its own descriptor: “greenocons.” It’s part of an evolving climate-security vocabulary that involves both advocates and victims – “climate migrants,” as the NIA puts it, or “climate refugees,” as has become commonplace.

Even climate change itself has been re-branded. It is now, in military parlance, a “threat multiplier,” making already-volatile political situations much worse.

Gore’s Spy Satellites

The climate NIA – and the framing of global warming as a national security issue – is not without controversy. Even at the congressional hearing in late June, there was rancor.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich) said it was a “pathetic use of intelligence resources.” Last year, as congressional Democrats fought to have the assessment done and tied to a bill, Hoekstra wrote an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal lambasting the move. He harkened back to then-Vice President Al Gore’s decision to use spy satellites to look at ecologically endangered sites around the Earth, just as Al Qaeda was rising.

(As The Washington Post reported, former CIA director George Tenet does mention in his memoir Gore’s climate surveillance program and says that the vice president was curious about “the impact on national security of water shortages, disease and environmental concerns.” But Tenet ultimately says he approved of Gore’s initiative.)

The political reality, too, is that the climate NIA might actually help re-frame the issue for the indifferent, or even give political cover to converts.

“The NIA will likely give a handful of security-minded Republicans some reasons to reassess the issue,” Joshua Busby, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Yale Forum in an e-mail.

Busby published a climate-security report last year for the Council on Foreign Relations, calling for high-level climate-focused positions to be created at the Department of Defense and National Security Council.

With a little mischief, conservative columnist Byron York has noted at the National Review online that the climate-security link also means Democrats “contrary to their long-time image, can claim to be very, very tough on national security.”

Hawks vs. Enviros

The issue of what to do now about the threats, Busby said, could create divisions between the security and environmental communities. He said that “adaptation” to environmental changes remains a “high priority” for some security watchers and officials, a recipe that greens are unlikely to accept.

Another potential military-green fault line implicit in the NIA is the framing of the issue in “nationalist” terms. That means, Busby explained, a short-sighted focus on “how to protect ‘our country’ or ‘our people’ rather than how the problem in the long-run poses grave risks for all humanity and requires collective action by at least the major greenhouse gas emitters.”

It all underscores the ambiguous nature of “security,” especially as the effects of global warming are unequally distributed.

In March, a European Union report co-authored by foreign policy head Javier Solana implied that global warming could boomerang against the industrial countries, fueling the “politics of resentment between those most responsible for climate change and those most affected by it.”

Perhaps another climate-security coinage is now in the works. Climate insurgents, anyone?

John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...