Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Climate change is a real national security threat, even for a realist

Guest post by Michael Lieberman

Michael Lieberman, a Truman National Security Project fellow, is an associate at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington D.C., where he works on international regulatory and compliance issues. He was previously a law consultant at The Asia Foundation. (The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Steptoe & Johnson LLP.)

In a recent piece, Stephen Walt takes a skeptical view of the U.S. government’s developing view of climate change as a national security issue, as detailed in a recent Department of Defense-funded think tank report by CNA and increasing interest by Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The calamities portended by droughts, famines, refugees, storms, and floods in far-flung places do not, Walt suggests, obviously or necessarily pose a danger to the United States. Consequently, the country ought not exaggerate the threat, nor think of the consequences in terms of security at all. Rather, any U.S. military action to respond to climate-related disasters should be considered humanitarian in nature. “Climate change might also foster instability in various ‘volatile areas,’” he continues, “but it does not immediately follow from that observation that U.S. interests will necessarily be affected in any significant way.”

Matt Yglesias is also nonplussed: “This talk of climate change as a national security threat has a bit of a whiff of hubristic imperialism about it as I don’t think it makes a ton of sense to look at every possible instance of drought, famine, mass migration, civil conflict, and human tragedy abroad as a ‘threat’ to the United States per se.” Yglesias offers little to respond to, aside from noting how much he must have relished concocting the term “hubristic imperialism” and how inapposite it is. His position is interesting, though, as an example of the left’s almost reactive aversion to viewing multifaceted and largely non-military issues through the lens of security at all. What else explains the exaggerated charge of hubris and empire at a problem that the left in general rightly and loudly champions?

Walt’s argument is more elaborate and compelling, and follows directly from his grounding in (and espousal of) “realist” foreign policy strategies. Before looking at his substantive points, though, we should address the extensive hedging surrounding his argument. It need not “immediately follow” that U.S. interests “will necessarily be affected” by global warming catastrophes for us to treat them as potentially dire national security threats. These straw men must be put to pasture. It is sufficient for a non-negligible risk of danger to the nation to arise from the consequences of climate change for national security planners to think about it seriously.

Walt’s major point — that we should not equate catastrophes abroad due to global warming with threats to the security of the nation — derives from his bare bones notion of national security. Walt’s definition seems to be limited to external, essentially man-made dangers affecting our homeland or our citizens. Indeed, this is in large part why he calls for the United States to curtail its global engagements, exercise restraint in its global leadership, and let its allies shoulder a greater burden of their own defense.

Such a definition of the U.S. role, in my view, is inordinately spare, but that issue need not detain us. For now we can adopt his view. Even if we limit our definition to real mortal threats directed at U.S. citizens in the homeland, the consequences of climate change ought to raise the alarm.

Let’s consider Walt’s recognition of “instability in ‘volatile’ areas” as an agreed-upon consequence of climate change, and an uncontroversial national security threat, terrorists who want to attack the U.S. or key interests abroad. Even Pakistan should qualify as a “volatile” area to Walt; it teems with Al Qaeda, Taliban, and other affiliated groups whose leaders have expressed their desire to repeat 9/11 on an even larger scale and in even more macabre ways.

Now think of Karachi, already a redoubt for Taliban and affiliated militants, and the swarms of young men that would willingly join their ranks in the event of mass catastrophe. This would inevitably displace and dispossess thousands of young men in that area and provoke a further weakening of the Pakistani state. Now, in addition to their long list of grievances against the West, these groups could add the crime of polluting the atmosphere and destroying their homes. Similar scenarios could play out in other areas of Pakistan as well, as the Himalayan glaciers melt precipitously, causing flooding inland, and as rising temperatures diminish agricultural production upon which so many poor Pakistanis rely (including many of the Taliban’s local foot soldiers).

Beyond bolstering the ranks of Islamic terrorists, entirely new anti-Western groups could arise in other hard-hit areas of the world that blame their predicament on the fact that the United States accounts for a quarter of the world’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, and surely a much larger share (from which we have become fabulously wealthy) over time. Such groups could strike U.S. assets or citizens abroad, demanding compensation or resettlement, or merely out of revenge.

Nor can traditional interstate conflict be ruled out either, as China and India, or Syria and Israel, become thirstier and the value of water rises, making military conflict a more plausible mode of dispute settlement. Such fights may fall outside of Walt’s strict definition of national security, true, but there can be no question that such scenarios would rightly be viewed as a grave security development to the United States.

Walt and Yglesias ignore such routine observations, seemingly due to some vague notion that the CNA report and the Pentagon are hyping the threat in service to the military-industrial complex. While it goes without saying we must match our response to the threat, and not all climate change catastrophes will warrant a response as a matter of national security (not all military missions would constitute such a response, e.g., humanitarian operations), there can be little doubt that heightened global instability will lead to the creation or revitalization of groups that want to damage the United States or its people. It is not a sufficient response to attribute this well-founded fear to hype or to overly broad definitions of national security.

As general Anthony Zinni (ret.) states, “It’s not hard to make the connection between climate change and instability or climate change and terrorism.” Nor is it hard to make the connection between climate change and U.S. national security, however defined. Hopefully Walt, Yglesias, and others will see this linkage and lend their voices to crafting constructive responses rather than dismiss the real dangers we face.

(Cross-posted from Operation FREE.)

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