Fighting global warming with CIA?

Some say security fears are counterproductive

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / August 22, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid email address
Invalid email address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

WASHINGTON - Melting ice caps. Drought. Spreading disease. US defense planners view global climate change as a national security threat because it could create millions of new refugees and intensify conflicts over resources.

But a diverse group of specialists is warning that the Pentagon’s involvement in helping address climate change carries its own dangers.

A new debate is unfolding over whether linking climate change too closely with security planning will create a self-fulfilling prophecy, running the risk that the United States will rely too heavily on its armed forces to deal with global problems.

“Once you try to securitize the problem, you also securitize the solution,’’ said Adil Najam, director of the Boston University’s Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

“The solution to those problems is not in the Pentagon,’’ he added. “It is moms and pops driving SUVs.’’

Najam and a growing number of others fear that policymakers will turn to the military too quickly - dispatching naval forces to secure new shipping lanes in the resource-rich Arctic as polar ice recedes, for instance - or hand the Pentagon a virtually limitless mission to stabilize regions suffering from environmental dislocation.

There is also concern that the underlying causes of conflicts - whether economic, religious, or political - will be glossed over in a rush to classify growing instability as “climate conflicts,’’ as some leaders have done with the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

The warning flags are going up across the political spectrum, with liberal and conservative voices in rare agreement that climate change is being folded into a variety of national security activities - including, for the first time, a review of long-term Pentagon strategy due out this fall - with insufficient attention to the impact.

Regular CIA assessments warn of the possible fallout from crop devastation and diminishing resources. Climate change is the subject of studies from foreign policy think tanks and the focus of military war games. Indeed, for two Pentagon strategists, planning for it is now their full-time job.

At the same time, security concerns have also become a rallying cry for proponents of climate change legislation, including Senator John F. Kerry, who has held hearings on the linkages as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But there is a risk that billions of dollars could be spent on defense preparations while less attention is given to taking steps to minimize damage to the climate, some assert.

Matthew Yglesias, a national security specialist at the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote earlier this month in a blog posting that he believes linking climate change with national security “has a bit of a whiff of hubristic imperialism about it.’’

“It’s true that climate change, if not halted, will lead to a lot of instability in the developing world,’’ Yglesias told the Globe by e-mail, “but to me, the habit of defining any instance of political instability anywhere as a national security problem for the United States is a form of ‘threat inflation’ that leads to bad foreign policy decisions.’’

Yglesias’ warnings came a few days after James Carafano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, warned against exaggerating the connection between the climate and security.

Carafano, a retired Army officer, said in a new report that “any changes in the climate, for better or worse, will occur gradually over decades. Thus, there will be ample time to adjust national security and humanitarian assistance instruments to accommodate future demands.’’

There is widespread agreement that if left unchecked, climate change could exacerbate ethnic tensions and possibly ignite wars over diminishing resources.

A commonly cited case study is the melting ice in the Arctic, which by 2030 is predicted to open the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route to shipping, providing access to some of the world’s most precious natural resources. Warnings about a brewing competition between Arctic nations - mainly the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark - have become commonplace.

“While these developments offer opportunities for growth, they are potential sources of competition for access to natural resources,’’ according to a US Navy strategy document published in 2007. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, meanwhile, deemed the Arctic a “new operational mission’’ for the military.

But a growing body of work warns that if it is not careful, the United States could dive headlong into a potentially dangerous confrontation with Russia in the Arctic.

“Overblown press coverage of Arctic security issues appears to be in inverse relationship to security realities,’’ concludes a new report by two Dartmouth College professors for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “There are no large geopolitical fault lines, and no resource wars anticipated.’’

Some see the linkages as politically motivated. Carafano, for example, has accused Democrats of exaggerating the security threat to gain support for new measures to curb carbon emissions. Some say there is a danger that, seen through a security lens, climate will be used to explain virtually all instability, such as when United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pointed to climate change as an underlying cause for the conflict in Darfur.

“It ignores political and economic motivations for the fighting - and can be perceived as a way to let the regime in Khartoum off the hook,’’ Geoffrey D. Dabelko, director of the environmental change and security program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, wrote in a recent report.

Dabelko said his concerns are only growing as the national security implications of climate change become a key component of the debate over what to do about it. “The challenge is not overblowing this about how [climate change] explains all problems involving all people,’’ Dabelko said in an interview.

The contribution of the national security community, however, is seen as critical by some long-time advocates for addressing climate change.

“The military has been far more thoughtful and insightful than academia about environmental security threats,’’ said Peter Gleick, a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Climate and International Security Committee. “If something is likely to pose a real security threat to the United States, it is their job to think about it, analyze it, and prepare for it, whether the risk is ideological, religious extremism, environmental in nature, or political.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at