Climate Change as a Security Threat

It was the end of yet another trip to Washington, D.C. I generally find myself in the nation’s capital between three to five times per year, all depending on project needs, meeting invitations, and other factors mostly relevant to my work for the American Planning Association. I don’t even remember now which trip it was or what I was doing, just that when it was all over, I found my way as usual to Reagan National Airport to fly home. It was early evening, and I had left enough time for dinner at Legal Sea Foods, one of my favorite restaurants. They just happen to have an outlet in the main hall before you go through security into one of the concourses.

I was sitting at the bar, an easy place to have a good seafood dinner alone with a beer, but soon found myself next to another gentleman. Being a compulsive extrovert at heart, I introduced myself, and we were soon engaged in a conversation about what we both did. I explained my work on planning for natural hazards and learned that he was a career Navy officer. Relating to my obvious interest in coastal hazards, he informed me that he had worked on some Pacific island bases and had taken note over time of the rise in sea level that posed long-term problems for those naval facilities. I was already well aware the Department of Defense has been paying close attention to climate change as a possible source of concern for national security, in part but not solely because of its impact on military facilities and capabilities.

The conversation eventually drifted to the politics of climate change and the disconnect between many Republican conservatives’ skepticism about climate science and the more objective and cautious position of the Defense Department. He observed, as I recall, that he preferred science to ideology and then delivered his unintended punch line: “I used to be a Republican, but they’re making a Democrat out of me.” I chuckled with him, and the conversation continued.

As I thought about it later, however, I considered it sad if he felt forced to abandon his Republican roots. It may sound attractive to most Democrats to attract such a man to their ranks, but I also think it is important that some voice for climate sanity and allegiance to scientific evidence retain its voice in the Republican party. It will be a bad day for this nation when such people feel there is no room for their voice in Republican circles because it is already sad enough that climate change is viewed by many as a matter of ideology instead of scientific inquiry. There is also no question, skeptics aside, that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates human influences on a changing climate and a need to prepare for effective adaptation to changes already underway and largely inevitable.

I mention all this as a way of introducing readers to a briefing book for the change in administrations, prepared before it was clear who would become the next president. The Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), chaired by the Center for Climate and Security in partnership with George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, produced the briefing book and released it in September. CSAG consists of a number of energy and climate experts in addition to numerous prominent retired military officers and officials.

Numerous such briefing books will find their way to the transition team for incoming President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Exactly which get read and when, and how many cabinet choices may be made before that happens, is anyone’s guess. A cynical or doubtful view can be had by considering both Trump’s past comments to the effect that climate change is a hoax and the views of some of the people surrounding him. A more positive view may be gleaned from the fact that his views on many such topics seem less than solid. It also remains to be seen how serious he may be about reading briefing books, given a reputed lack of interest in reading, but it is hard to imagine how long any president can avoid confronting the briefing materials that will come his way. The fact that the advice is coming from military experts may weigh more heavily than warnings from environmentalists or even scientists. Right now, it is just hard to know. Trump is almost surely one of the least predictable incoming presidents of modern times. But if he were ultimately to take climate science seriously—admittedly a big if—his administration could almost become transformative on the issue by bringing many of his supporters with him.

As for the briefing book, “Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate,” it is worth understanding its purposes, and what it does and does not do. It is not itself a scientific document. Instead, it is a consensus-based set of recommendations from the many people listed as advisors. It details specific actions the incoming administration is advised to take in areas of defense, foreign policy, homeland security, intelligence, and energy, often urging that positions responsible for monitoring and counseling on actions to address climate change be elevated to a higher status in their respective agencies and in the White House.

For example, one area that receives repeated attention throughout the document is a melting Arctic Ocean, which introduces a number of national security questions ranging from the opening of a previously frozen seaway to oceangoing traffic to issues related to the extraction of natural resources from its fragile environment. These are no small issues and demand urgent attention. A sobering but fascinating view of those changes was offered five years ago by geographer Laurence C. Smith of the University of California-Los Angeles, in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future.

The briefing book also takes the approach, already widely under consideration in the Pentagon, that climate change can potentially spawn serious international conflicts over scarce resources as a result of drought, extreme precipitation, and sea level rise, which are already inducing migration from affected areas. The ultimate question for the new Trump administration may be whether it is worth the price to the nation to ignore such potential sources of national and international instability. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon those with an intimate understanding of these issues to continue to advocate the truth as they know it—because climate change will not cease simply because some people refuse to believe in it. Climate change is not a matter of faith. It should be treated as a matter of scientific evidence and investigation.

Jim Schwab

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