US military strategists warn that climate is a ‘catalyst for conflict’

Even the Pentagon is issuing warnings about climate change. Duffman/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Warnings about the dangers of climate change are coming from some new and not so new places. Military, security and foreign policy advisors, financial marketeers, the White House – all have recently set out the risks in stark terms.

It is difficult to imagine a more influential set of voices – particularly among military strategists – than the ones that are now speaking out.

The world’s biggest insurance market, Lloyd’s of London, recently urged insurers to include risks posed by climate change in their models, after a record-breaking year in 2011 which saw the industry lose US$127 billion to natural disasters.

That warning came on the heels of a major White House report, the National Climate Assessment, which found that few places in the United States will be unaffected by the effects of climate change, and that the “observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy”.

Growing security threat

But it is in US military and foreign policy circles where some of the most potentially game-changing warnings are now being sounded. The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, which comprises 16 retired US military officers (none below the rank of brigadier general), last week released its report, National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.

It says that actions by the US and other countries have not been sufficient to adapt to climate change, and that the issue is a “catalyst for conflict in vulnerable parts of the world” – not to mention a threat to America’s domestic military readiness.

The report also says that:

rapid population growth … and complex changes in the global security environment have made understanding the strategic security risks of projected climate changes more challenging. When it comes to thinking about the impacts of climate change, we must guard against a failure of imagination.

The board recommends that the United States should take a global leadership role in preparing for the projected impacts of climate change, which will affect military, infrastructure, economic and social support systems.

In one sense, it is already doing this. Three months ago, the US government made a submission – its first ever – to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, proposing a global deal that is at least partly legally binding, and which “reflects the seriousness and magnitude of what science demands”.

From the Obama administration’s point of view, such a deal might have to be introduced through the executive branch authority rather than through Congress, given the impossibility of Congressional action in this regard.

Next month the administration will introduce regulation to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, and later this year Secretary of State John Kerry will deliver a major speech on the links between climate change and national security.

Climate change and terrorism

Meanwhile, the Pentagon, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, has reported that:

the impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.

This report, published six weeks before the CNA Corporation’s report, makes a direct link between terrorism and the effects of climate change (which, like the CNA military board, it also describes as a “catalyst for conflict”).

According to the Pentagon, climate effects are:

threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

Clear and present danger

These reports are not the first to draw a link between climate change and conflict. Previous examples include the Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars, British policy analyst Cleo Paskal’s Global Warring and, most significantly, Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy Implications of Climate Change, compiled with the help of the influential think tank the Center for a New American Security.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its recent assessment report on climate impacts, also warned of the links between climate change and violent conflicts such as civil wars, which can be sparked by poverty and economic shocks.

But the new warnings are different – not in terms of what they say, but because they come from the corridors of US military power.

It is clear, as never before, that the US government and military now view climate change as a clear and present danger.