Senate testimony on climate change and national security raises questions: Whose security?


Global climatic disruption will pose a national security problem and will require a response from the US national security apparatus, a panel of experts told an October 28 Senate Environment Committee hearing on the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. But climate change doesn’t have a national security solution. This calls for careful framing for US policymaking of the issue of whose security, and insecurity, is at stake.

Post by Alexa Jay and Rick Piltz

On the second day of three days of hearings this week on climate and clean energy legislation held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the Committee heard from former US Senator John Warner, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces at the Department of Defense, and four distinguished military veterans.

The witnesses echoed concerns previously expressed in reports like the American Security Project’s Climate Security Index and the CNA Corporation’s National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, which identified climate change as a national security ‘threat multiplier.’ (See our September 29 post, Climate Security Index: Global climate disruption seen as a US national security problem.) As in these reports, the focus at the hearing was on the necessity of decision-making in the face of uncertainty that confronts attempts to address the US national security implications of climate change.

Kathleen Hicks, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces at the Department of Defense, noted: “Although specific climate change effects and outcomes cannot be predicted with accuracy or certainty, there are general trends in climate change that are reasonably expected to occur and can be considered in planning and conducting DoD activities.”

Vice Admiral McGinn, USN (Ret.) said: “As military leaders, we base our decisions on trends, indicators and warnings, because waiting for 100% certainty during a crisis can be disastrous. And as we carefully consider the threat of climate change and energy to global security, these trends and warnings are clear.”

He continued: “Climate impacts like extreme drought, flooding, storms, temperatures, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and wildfires—occurring more frequently and more intensely across the globe—will inevitably create political instability where societal demands for the essentials of life exceed the capacity of governments to cope…The U.S. military will be called to respond to these new threats—mobilizing to meet the needs of humanitarian crises, like our response to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.”

Drew Sloan, a former US Army Captain, emphasized the US military response to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 1992 military presence in Somalia to provide food to those forced into starvation by prolonged drought. He said that “while these actions arguably depicted America at its best, they were not without cost,” in both dollar and human terms. “As climate change wreaks havoc across the world, so too will it wreak havoc on the military’s ability to properly handle the nation’s national security interests.”

It is difficult to ground projections about potential future environmental and humanitarian crises in distant parts of the globe in the daily concerns of the American public. However, these testimonies suggest that, when disaster breaks out, the US military will be called upon to respond, and those missions will strain the military’s other efforts to safeguard US national security. 

Taking an opposing stance, the minority witness Lieutenant Colonel James Jay Carafano argued, in effect, that because we do not completely understand all of the elements of a complex system, the proper response is to focus on short-term national security interests.

It is notable that recent studies on the national security implications of climate change have not attempted to establish direct correlations between broad environmental changes and specific future events. Instead, climate change is identified as a ‘threat multiplier,’ aggravating the dangers posed by resource constraints, social and political instability, and institutional failure. 

The combined testimony of the witnesses reinforces the point that, while climate change poses a national security problem and will require a response from the US national security apparatus, it does not have a national security solution. The role of the US military in a disrupted climate will be that of crisis containment in a world where natural disasters and the resulting humanitarian crises are projected to become increasingly common.

These projections raise the question: whose security is at stake here?  The ‘national security’ implications of climate change are being addressed on two levels: first, the incorporation of projected impacts into US defense planning, and second, the role of the US defense apparatus in an increasingly climate-disrupted world. Yet prioritizing the protection of wealthy enclaves like the United States will not address the root cause of human welfare insecurities on a global level. 

The worst impacts of unchecked climate disruption will hit the least developed countries first and hardest; these populations overwhelmingly do not have access to the resources that enable them to make themselves secure. Military efforts at mitigating the most severe human costs of impacts will not address the basic inequities that climate change will exacerbate.

The role of sustainable development in addressing these inequities, and their relationship to the kind of instability that poses a threat to human welfare and will be exacerbated by unchecked climate disruption, must be part of any serious discussion of climate change as a ‘security’ issue.

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