At a recent briefing on Capitol Hill, far from the alert attention of mainstream news organizations, retired General Anthony Zinni warned that the global loss of forests, freshwater, fish and arable land is driving political instability and threatening global security.

Also see, within this feature:
Climate Change a Growing Concern for U.S. Navy
Preparing for an Open Arctic
National Securities Studies Abroad
More Resources on Climate Change and Security

“Whether it be climate change, whether it is the disruption of the environment in other ways … we’re going to see more failed and incapable states,” said Zinni, a former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Central Command.

The briefing, hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for a New American Security, marked one of a number of recent discussions across the nation’s capital, across the nation, and overseas about how policy thinkers and military planners are viewing continued climate change as a national security issue.

For instance, in an earlier interview with Charlie Rose, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage pointed to extreme swings in weather around the world this year as a destabilizing force.

“There are floods in China, terrible floods in Pakistan, thousand-year record heat in Russia, floods in the Midwest,” Armitage said. “We’ve got to come to grips with this climate. We’ve got to.”

The next day on that same Charlie Rose program during a discussion of the Senate’s failure to pass a comprehensive energy bill, Eric Pooley, deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, remarked: “The fact is, Rich Armitage is right. This is a national security issue and we’re running out of time.”

The worry expressed by Zinni, Armitage, and Pooley hasn’t simply emerged from a vacuum. For several years, a number of key analyses, studies, and even war games have focused on how climate change could reshape the global security landscape.

“The popular debate surrounding ‘global warming’ is rife with emotion and has paralyzed U.S. policymakers,” Michael Baker, a Navy commander and a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, recently wrote in “The Coming Conflicts of Climate Change.”

For the U.S. Navy, a particular set of concerns over impacts of climate change…risks to performance and infrastructure.

“Military planners, however, remain divorced from the emotional content of the topic, looking at possible scenarios and conducting planning to address the associated challenges and threats arising from sharp changes in climate.”

With scenario planning deeply ingrained in military culture, military experts are examining numerous possibilities in a world where future warming is assumed, Baker said in an October telephone interview with The Yale Forum. He reiterated that he was speaking as an individual and not as a representative of the Department of Defense.

“There’s not a debate of ‘Is it something real? Is it something that we need to be concerned with? Is the science good enough to proceed on planning?’ I think all of that is basically accepted as a planning assumption right now,” Baker said.

“The military planners are looking at it and saying, ‘OK, let’s assume that this is all right. What are the implications for us, and what do we need to start planning for?’”

More and More Studies With Increased Specificity

One of the first analyses on the subject widely publicized in mainstream media was a study commissioned by the Department of Defense in 2003 and reported, for instance, by Fortune magazine in February 2004.

An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security considered the potential fallout from abrupt changes in global climate such as a slowing of thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic Ocean, and an increase in winds and sharp decline in soil moisture.

The report contemplated the impact of worldwide food shortages, shifts in rainfall that dessicate some areas and flood others, and disrupted access to sources of energy — in part because of increasing storminess at sea. All of these changes and more could lead nations to adopt offensive and defensive postures as natural resources become more scarce and unevenly balanced, the authors wrote.

At 22 pages, the 2003 study was brief but alarming, and it made a big splash in the media.

More recently, numerous other reports have been published, and foreign policy experts and military planners have produced increasingly detailed studies. In 2007, CNA’s Center for Naval Analysis in Alexandria, Va., published “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” characterizing continued warming as a “threat multiplier” that will exacerbate many instabilities that already exist. Since then, CNA has followed up with other studies on the issue.

The Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., also has paid particular attention to the confluence of climate change and national security issues.

In 2008, the government’s National Intelligence Council completed a classified report titled “National Security Implications of Global Climate Change Through 2030,” a 58-page assessment prepared over two years.

The study, relying predominately on a mid-range projection of climate changes detailed in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, was completed in consultation with several organizations, among them the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (aka U.S. Global Change Research Program); NOAA; the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University; and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Examining not only climate data but also region-specific information on water scarcity, overall vulnerability to climate change, and populations at risk from a rise in sea levels, the 2008 NIC study forecast several potential destabilizing trends. While the report was still classified, Dr. Thomas Fingar, deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis and chairman of the NIC, detailed some of the report’s conclusions in testimony to Congress in June of 2008.

Among them:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to continue to be the most vulnerable region to climate change, as a result of multiple stresses. Agricultural losses in the Sahel, West Africa and southern Africa could be severe. Yields from some rainfall-dependent crops could fall by up to 50 percent by 2020.
  • South, Southeast, and East Asia are expected to be stressed by reduced agricultural productivity as a result of increased flooding and droughts. By 2025, cereal crop yields could decrease by as much as 10 percent.
  • The Caribbean Basin is expected to experience continued extreme weather events, including hurricanes and intense rainfall and flooding.

In his testimony, Fingar singled-out disparities in agricultural yields from region to region as a destabilizing influence on global security — as “economic refugees” migrate to urban areas and across borders.

For more reliable forecasting, climate models must improve, Fingar told Congress. “From an intelligence perspective, the present level of understanding of future climate lacks the resolution and specificity we would like for detailed analysis at the state level,” he said.

Fingar said further that “there is a need for better information on physical, agricultural, economic, social, and political impacts from climate change at state and regional levels.”

For examples of media coverage at the time, see coverage by National Public Radio and Wired.

More background on the 2008 NIC study from Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network is also available here and here.

Since 2008, there have been signs that the intelligence and military communities increasingly are working to collaborate with civilian organizations to get better information.

This past June, for instance, military experts and academics came together at a conference organized by the Center for Environment and National Security, a new project launched at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

In a New York Times story about the meeting, Lauren Morello of ClimateWire quoted Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, who remarked that the Navy and Air Force are in talks with NOAA to develop next-generation climate models that will incorporate knowledge of the social sciences, agriculture and marine ecosystems — “not just understanding that temperature is going up ‘X’ degrees.”

In the meantime, the NIC published a series of country-specific reports in 2009 and earlier this year offering some of the best assessments available about climate change and global security issues in specific areas abroad.

The series covers China, India, Russia, Southeast Asia & Pacific Islands, North Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean and Central America.

Climate Change a Growing Concern for U.S. Navy

The Navy has taken particular interest in climate change for at least one obvious reason: projected sea level rises and extreme weather are expected to put Naval operations around the world at risk and lead to expensive retrofits to some Navy installations.

Under the direction of Titley, the Navy’s senior oceanographer, the Navy in 2009 launched a Task Force Climate Change to study the issue (see media coverage of the task force).

In May, the task force published a Roadmap for Global Climate Change, which serves as a companion document to its 2009 report Navy Arctic Roadmap (see here and here). That report outlines strategies “to promote maritime security and naval readiness in a changing Arctic.”

“We issued the Arctic Roadmap first because that is where the most significant evidence of climate change is occurring,” Titley said when the Roadmap for Global Climate Change was released in May. “But the Arctic is not a vacuum. The changes that are occurring there, from both an environmental and political standpoint, reflect changes that will occur in the rest of the world.”

The Roadmap, publicized on the task force’s Facebook page, calls for actions in three phases through the year 2014.

Those recommended actions involve 1) improving the Navy’s ability to predict how climate change will influence future operations; 2) rethinking of how best to deal with climate change impacts in Naval War College coursework and strategic “table top” exercises; and 3) consideration of how to develop recommendations for protecting Naval installations vulnerable to rising sea levels and recommendations for responding to regions destabilized by climate change.

Michael Baker, in his September 7 piece for the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed the U.S. Navy’s first gaming exercise considering impacts of climate change.

“In each scenario,” Baker wrote, “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.

Preparing for an Open Arctic

In April 2010, the Naval Studies Council of the National Research Council published National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces. The Letter Report offered some preliminary conclusions about how the Navy should prepare for a world transformed by climate change.

The report signaled that many naval coastal installations will face risks from climate change impacts and that major investments will have to be made over the next 20 to 30 years to protect them.

In a discussion of operations in the Arctic, the Letter Report said Naval experts do not anticipate that the continuing melting of sea ice will open up the Arctic to routine commercial traffic “in the foreseeable future.”

But over the next 30 years, “future requirements for U.S. maritime operations in the Arctic will increase.”

Operating in the Arctic today is not a priority for the Navy, and U.S. Naval support infrastructure is “sparse at best,” the report said. However, the Coast Guard has made the Arctic a priority, and a major review of Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic is now under way.

The Letter Report pointed to major investments needed in satellite communications, and also in ice-breaking resources. “This deficiency is particularly significant given the recent and continuing investment for ice breaking resources by other countries, including China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the European Union,” the authors wrote.

“Neither the U.S. Navy nor the U.S. Coast Guard is currently well equipped for increased maritime operations in the Arctic, or for what might become contentious positioning for territorial sovereignty and for natural resources among bordering nations,” they continued. “This situation may
pose a risk for future U.S. national security in the longer term owing to the inability of current U.S. naval assets to project a routine military presence in the region, despite the opening of new sea lanes.”

Partnerships with other nations, particularly Canada, will help mitigate the risks of potential conflicts, but the Letter Report cited the U.S. failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) as increasing the risk of potential conflicts.

The Letter Report said the Navy also needs to learn more about warming seas, about changes in the thermal structure of the oceans worldwide, and about changing salinity and acidification. All of those changes are expected to affect the performance of acoustic sensors, the behavior of torpedoes, and other Navy operations.

Among other topics, the final report is expected to examine how Navy forces can train and operate in more extreme weather conditions and unpredictable storms at sea.

National Securities Studies Abroad

Think tanks abroad are also focusing increasingly on climate change and global security issues. One of the most prominent is The International Institute for Strategic Studies, (IISS) based in London.

On October 6, the IISS hosted a workshop on global security risks associated with rapid melting sea ice and an open Arctic. The workshop examined potential conflicts over the dash for vast reserves of gas and oil, non-ferrous metals, timber, and other natural resources. International law governing access to those resources remain unsettled. Russia and Canada, for example, lay claim to “internal waters” that others, including the United States, regard as international straits.

A recording of the workshop is available online.

The IISS, meanwhile, also has produced several reports on climate change and national security. Jeffrey Mazo, a research fellow at IISS and chair of the October 6 workshop, has written a report titled “Climate Conflict: How global warming threatens security and what to do about it.”

A 2009 report by IISS examined the political consequences of continued climate change.

IISS also has a web page devoted to climate change and global security issues, titled “Transatlantic Dialogue on Climate Change and Security” and also a blog on the topic.

More Resources on Climate Change and Security

A topic as sweeping as climate change and global security is bound to have a large amount of information, and a lot of organizations are engaged in the issue. Here are a few more resources:

Pew Project of National Security, Energy and Climate (here and here)

CIA Center on Climate Change & National Security (here and here)

News coverage:

Coverage by the journal, Nature

New York Times editorial from 2009 and article from 2009.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...