Climate change a ‘catalyst for conflict,’ say US national security experts

Tahrir Square protest

Tahrir Square protest. Creative Commons: Hossam el-Hamalawy, 2011

Military officials are warning that the accelerating pace of climate change is beginning to pose risks to national security in the United States.

The CNA Corporation’s Military Advisory Board, a government funded military research group, released a report Tuesday detailing the national security implications of a changing climate. The report builds on the conclusions of a similar report released by the same organization in 2007.

The 2007 report, titled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” found that climate change acts as a ‘threat multiplier’ by exacerbating the conditions of poverty, environmental degradation, and political instability that enable terrorism and other acts of violence.

Contributors to the new report—including over a dozen former generals and admirals—say that the effects of climate change will continue serve as threat multipliers. And, they go even further by showing how climate change has also begun to catalyze conflict in its own right by jeopardizing access to food and water around the globe.

As examples of this phenomenon, the report points to the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a 2012 rebellion by Tuareg nomadic herdsmen in northern Mail that led to the collapse of the government there, and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Although climate change cannot be said to have directly caused these events, it is likely that desertification, drought, wheat shortages, and decimated livestock populations significantly contributed to their occurrence.

The updated report follows on the heels of several major analyses that detail the present day impacts of climate change. The National Climate Assessment—released by the White House earlier this month—shows that climate change is already causing longer, hotter summers, heavy downpours, extreme weather events, and sea level rise. These consequences of climate change are having negative impacts on public health, inland and marine ecosystems, and agriculture.

From a military perspective, climate change is particularly threatening because it jeopardizes critical infrastructure including coastal military bases, roads, rail lines, refineries, and energy transmission lines. And, as higher temperatures melt sea ice and open shipping lanes and drilling sites in the Arctic, there are new opportunities for political posturing and the unwelcome collision of spheres of influence.

Army General Paul Kern (Ret.), a panel chairman, told NBC:

We see areas around the globe where projected climate change causes us concern, but the most immediate is in the Arctic. Accelerated melting of ice is already opening the area. The US and international community are not ready to respond to disasters or to resolve territory and resource disputes. We see this as not only a risk to the environment, but a risk to security of the area.

The authors of the study make it clear that action on climate change should not be delayed if the United States is serious about preventing acts of terrorism or endangering American interests abroad.

In the study’s foreword, Michael Chertoff, former US Secretary of Homeland Security, and Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense, call the update a “bipartisan call to action.” Taking stock of the situation, they display an urgency around climate that is quickly becoming ubiquitous, writing, “we no longer have the option to wait and see.”


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