NYT: Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security


The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

So begins the excellent lead story by John Broder in today’s NY Times.   This  won’t surprise regular readers — indeed, last September I wrote about an unusually savvy new intelligence forecast on global risks “previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst” which

… envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.

The report … also concludes that one key area of continued U.S. superiority “” military power “” will “be the least significant” asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because “nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force.”

Thank you George Bush and Dick Cheney and your fellow deniers for delaying action so long has to make such an outcome all but inevitable!

The photo above is from Darfur.  The NYT notes, “The conflict in southern Sudan, which has killed and displaced tens of thousands of people, is partly a result of drought in Darfur.”   A 2007 Atlantic Monthly piece, “The Real Roots of Darfur,” went further, asserting, “The violence in Darfur is usually attributed to ethnic hatred. But global warming may be primarily to blame.”

And we haven’t even warmed 1°C yet!  We’re facing more than five times as much warming the century as the last century on our current emissions path.  How much conflict and misery will be caused when we have turned one third of the Earth’s inhabited land mass into a Dust Bowl and sea levels are more than a meter higher and the oceans are increasingly hot, acidified dead zone, which is what the second half of the century holds in store when we blow past 550 ppm on route to 850 to 1000 ppm or more?

The NYT offers this grim scenario:

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

One military exercise “explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure.”

The UK government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, laid out a similar scenario in a March speech to the government’s Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster. He warned that by 2030, “A ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions,” as the UK’s Guardian put it.  The NYT continues:

If the United States does not lead the world in reducing fossil-fuel consumption and thus emissions of global warming gases, proponents of this view say, a series of global environmental, social, political and possibly military crises loom that the nation will urgently have to address.

This argument could prove a fulcrum for debate in the Senate next month when it takes up climate and energy legislation passed in June by the House.

Lawmakers leading the debate before Congress are only now beginning to make the national security argument for approving the legislation.

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the climate legislation, said he hoped to sway Senate skeptics by pressing that issue to pass a meaningful bill.

Mr. Kerry said he did not know whether he would succeed but had spoken with 30 undecided senators on the matter.

I do think this is an important argument to make to Senators, many of whom see themselves as historical figures playing on the world stage.  Indeed, this is part of the even bigger message that Senators who vote to block the national action — and hence vote to kill any chance of a global deal — will be remembered for condemning the next 50 generations to unimaginable misery and strife.

BUT as serious as this argument is, it’s equally important not to leave people with the impression that one is arguing global warming is mainly going to impact other countries, and not us.  The United States will be directly devastated by climate change if we don’t rapidly reverse emissions trends (see “Intro to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water ” and Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year “” and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!).

“We will pay for this one way or another,” Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of the Central Command, wrote recently in a report he prepared as a member of a military advisory board on energy and climate at CNA, a private group that does research for the Navy. “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.

“Or we will pay the price later in military terms,” he warned. “And that will involve human lives.”

For more discussion of the kind of wars we might be seeing, albeit for the year 2046, here is a three-part radio series on Climate Wars.

The time to act is yesterday.

12 Responses to NYT: Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security

  1. caerbannog says:

    After reading through the comments following that NYT article, I have to conclude that the biggest threat to our national security isn’t terrorists. It’s idiots.

  2. pete best says:

    Yes, intelligent people through capatalist means give idots lots of way of wasting energy and consuming fossil fuels. The idiots outnumber the intelligent by a large margin so the intelligent and good at capatalism get wealthy and hence create more stuff high in energy usage.

  3. Mark says:

    Thank you for keeping this issue alive at Climate Progress. The human security impact of climate change is a story that’s just starting to get some traction, but in the end I think it will be one of the most compelling. It’s encouraging to see the mainstream media pick this up. I would also highly recommend the interviews that Gwynne Dyer conducted for ‘Climate Wars’:

    The issue of climate change and security is also a hot topic of debate at the United Nations, where the Pacific small island developing states (PSIDS) recently passed a consensus General Assembly resolution on the matter:

    Obviously, the security threats of climate change are not lost on the Pacific islands. As mandated by the resolution, the Secretary General will be releasing a report on the topic this fall. We may also see the Security Council reengage the issue after a two-year hiatus:

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Joesph Tainter’s “The Collpase of Complex Societies” writ large…

  5. James Newberry says:

    Nice to know that after massive burning of fossil fuels by the military during the cold war and (fraudulent) Iraq invasion they are now becoming concerned. What irony in that B-52 jet trail which includes invisible carbon dioxide that AGW is considered a threat to the base. You mean to say, now that we are on the precipice of global ecological collapse the military has discerned this unfolding international tragedy as possibly some kind of threat to security. What have these guys been reading for the past quarter century?

    However, better late than never. Welcome to the club of hundreds of millions of concerned world citizens.

  6. ecostew says:

    I keep notes on energy security and mitigating AGW. If you would like them:

  7. Phil Eisner says:

    Joe, you have done a wonderful job presenting the facts of global warming and promoting political action. Now, I fervently hope the NY Times will also take a leadership role in this vital war against idiots, deniers, and too many politicians who are proving to be immoral and unethical representatives because they are not acting in the best interests of our nation and our planet.

    We must not let the U.S. appear weak at the upcoming Copenhagen meeting. We must pass a strong CO2 reduction law or its equivalent before December. Otherwise, I fear that the world will delay new, stronger measures for C2 reduction. China and India must not be given a free pass, even for a few years. The immediate path of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is going to reach 500 ppm very soon unless the whole world acts fiercely and immediately!

  8. Uosdwis says:

    You would think that the Republicans, who worship the military, would listen to what former Marine and commander of CentCom Gen. Zinni says, but I bet they start smearing him real soon. So I hope I live long enough to see Kansas (home of senator Pat Roberts) and neighboring Oklahoma (Sen Jim Inhofe) above, and way above, 90deg for 120 days or more. Let’s see how they explain that away. If they haven’t quit before then..

  9. NFJM says:

    Responsibility for climate change will be a crucial part on how countries are perceived in the future. Maybe even in a near future.

    I can not rationally think that the best way of ensuring a nation’s survival is to be hated by the next 50 generations. That would go against any know logic. The idiots you are talking about are making sure the US will be mentionned in history books in a not very positive manner. The worst is that they do not even realize how they have undermined what used to be a great and generous nation.

    I also can not rationally think that people in distress due to climate related events in the world will not learn at some point on the reasons why their living conditions are suboptimal compared to a sustainable world.

    I would in all honesty ask this very MAchiavellian question to our western world: is it better to be loved or to be feared?

  10. Gail says:

    Best comment on the NYT site:

    Roost, meet chickens.

  11. Rick Covert says:

    The deniers have no shame. Just as the neocons outed Valerie Plame, Gen. Anthony Zinni ret. will be swift-boated by the deniers just like anyone who dares to challenge the conventional orthodoxy of unfettered and unregulated free markets where greenhouse gas emissions legislation has no place.