Climate Is a Security Issue

Defense Department Reports Project Mixed Impressions of Climate Threats

Recent Defense Department reports show that the agency is not yet speaking with one voice on climate security like it should be, writes Laura Conley.

A young Papua New Guinean girl, who is believed to have contracted malaria, sleeps on the front porch of her bayside shack. Scientists report that malaria will begin spreading to new areas as the climate warms. (AP/David Longstreath)
A young Papua New Guinean girl, who is believed to have contracted malaria, sleeps on the front porch of her bayside shack. Scientists report that malaria will begin spreading to new areas as the climate warms. (AP/David Longstreath)

The 2010 Joint Operating Environment report, recently released by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, rightly recognizes climate change as one of 10 trends “most likely to impact the Joint Force.” The JOE is a periodic planning document created by USJFCOM, the military command responsible for developing ideas to better integrate and coordinate the work of our nation’s individual armed services. The report does not have the stature of the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, but it does serve as “an intellectual foundation” for future force development. It is therefore heartening to see the report draw attention to this serious and understudied national security concern. Yet in this case the old aphorism isn’t quite true: well begun isn’t nearly half done.

Including climate security issues is important, but the new report does not reflect the Defense Department’s own progress in mapping out the national security consequences of climate change since the last JOE was released in 2008. This is serious cause for concern for an issue as potentially wide-ranging as climate security that will push our military beyond traditional operations and familiars notions of national security, and DOD should have a consistent strategy to move forward in this 21st century operating environment.

The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review acknowledged for the first time this year that climate change is an “accelerant of instability.” This essentially means that planning for climate security challenges requires understanding and anticipating a wide spectrum of the second- and third-order effects of climate change. For example, a climate event will likely not cause conflict in itself, but it might worsen food shortages, drive people to migrate internally or internationally, and consequently exacerbate existing conflicts or political instability. This idea is already accepted wisdom in the United Kingdom. As Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the U.K.’s climate and energy security envoy noted in a recent op-ed with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Amanda Dory, “climate change will amplify the impact of some of the world’s most difficult and common challenges.”

Yet the 2010 JOE climate section appears to be just an elaboration of the ideas outlined in the 2008 report—in some cases whole sentences were transferred verbatim. The 2010 report recognizes climate change as a threat because of “global warming and its potential to cause natural disasters and other harmful phenomena such as rising sea levels.” And it notes several potential consequences of the changing climate, including resource competition in new areas as arctic ice recedes, pressure on coastal populations as saltwater threatens fresh water supplies, and the potential for natural disasters to overwhelm already weak states. But it overlooks the essential recognition of climate change as an accelerant of instability, or threat multiplier.

This designation is important because it would demand than the JOE offer a broader vision for how climate change will interact with a wide variety of security trends, as well as examine how climate-induced challenges may influence and build on each other. This missing perspective is particularly evident in the case of two issues, pandemic disease and migration.

The Center for Naval Analyses called in 2007 for the next QDR to “examine the capabilities of the U.S. military to respond to the consequences of climate change, in particular, preparedness for natural disasters from extreme weather events, pandemic disease events, and other related missions.” And the New York Academy of Sciences last month held a symposium to examine “emerging infectious diseases in response to climate change.” Yet the JOE report misses this key causal connection. Unlike the QDR, it addresses infectious diseases and pandemics entirely in isolation of its discussion of climate security challenges.

The JOE report also seems to miss the depth of the connection between migration and climate change. It acknowledges that coastal populations are growing quickly and that “local population pressures will increase as people move away from inundated areas and settle farther up-country,” but the section on climate change misses the essence of why these movements should influence the way we structure our armed forces.

The demographics section gets the idea right: migrations, particularly those in already troubled areas, not only cause population pressures, but can “disrupt patterns of culture, politics, and economics and in most cases carry with them the potential of further dislocations and troubles.” Some estimates predict that the world will see 200 million climate migrants by 2050 in places like Northwest Africa, Bangladesh and India, and China—areas that the Center for American Progress will explore in a series of upcoming reports on climate security issues. But the rest of the report misses the extent of this connection.

It will be increasingly important as the Pentagon continues its work on climate security issues for reports such as the QDR and JOE to consistently reflect the latest thinking on the issue within the Defense Department. Such consistency and clear messaging are particularly important because DOD cannot and should not handle climate security policy alone. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will have leading roles to play in managing and mitigating the effects of climate change, and DOD should speak with one voice in this vital interagency conversation. Our armed forces will be better prepared to deal with the security implications of climate change in the future if they can institutionalize meaningful, clearly defined cooperation with interagency partners now.

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