The national security frame: a path forward for climate change communication?


The Pentagon / Flickr user Rudi Riet

After a spike in late 2009 propelled by the Copenhagen climate conference, mainstream media coverage of climate change dropped off steeply.  One dimension of the issue, the intersection of climate change impacts and national security, has been increasingly accentuated in an attempt to give the issue greater immediacy.  This perspective highlights the potential for climate change impacts to increase instability in volatile regions of the world, with major implications for U.S. resources, military readiness, and foreign aid.  Yet this frame defines threats to human welfare in terms of U.S. national interest, potentially restricting how the American public connects U.S. energy usage with the global extent of the climate problem and envisions the U.S. role in addressing it.  Can the national security perspective bring urgency to the climate and energy issue while broadening its scope beyond U.S. self interest?

The Center for Science & Technology Policy Research compiled one analysis of the downward trend in media coverage of climate change worldwide, showing a return to 2005 levels.

Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor of communication at American University, attributed the decline to both “the reduced capacity of news organizations to cover climate change” and to what has been termed the loss of the story’s “perceived dramatic qualities.”  Climate change has historically received the greatest media coverage around “dramatic political focusing events” that fulfilled reporters’ need for a dramatic narrative with conflicting interests, Nisbet said, exemplified by the political wrangling surrounding the Copenhagen conference.

Nisbet argues that climate change is unlikely to regain prominence in the media unless a new “frame” is established for the issue that can define it in terms of immediate, locally relevant impacts, such as human health risks.

However, one crucial challenge in communicating the issue has been exactly that: the perceived lack of certainty in regional and local impacts, which saps the urgency from the problem for many.  One approach for increasing relevance, especially in making the case for climate and energy legislation, has been the strategic use of a national security frame.  A number of groups have leveraged the expertise of military leaders to communicate the risks posed to national security by the destabilizing impacts of climate change in volatile regions (see Center for Naval Analysis, the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, Operation Free).

The national security frame has been used to cultivate support for both the transition away from fossil fuels and the need to maintain robust climate monitoring capabilities.

A new iteration of that framework is in the news now: a team of graduate journalism students at Northwestern University has kicked off a series of print and video stories on the national security implications of climate change as part of the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative.  The Washington Post and other news outlets printed the first two stories in the series during the past week.

“Our man in the greenhouse: Why the CIA is spying on a changing climate” by Charles Mead and Annie Snider examined the history and efficacy of the intelligence community’s climate monitoring efforts, finding major deficiencies:

The U.S. government is ill-prepared to act on changes that are coming faster than anticipated and threaten to bring instability to places of U.S. national interest, according to interviews with several dozen current and former officials and outside experts, and a review of two decades’ worth of government reports.  Climate projections lack critical detail, they say, and information about how people react to changes—for instance, by migrating—is sparse.  Military brass say they don’t yet have the intelligence they need in order to act.

As in the communication of climate change impacts, the broad scale of climate models is a frustration for military and intelligence planning and analysis.

A Pentagon official told the reporters:

Right now there’s a gap between, ‘OK, we can have a weather forecast for what the weather’s going to be in the next month, and then we have the climate forecast, which is 30 to 100 years out…It really doesn’t help the combatant commanders plan their operations.

A second article by Heather Somerville, “Losing the Andes glaciers,” examined the risks posed to human security by the decline in South American glaciers.  The mounting crisis, which threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of rural and urban dwellers in the region, will have major implications for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid surrounding climate change adaptation and development funding, and possibly military assistance in the event of resource conflict or humanitarian disaster.

The article ends with a stark statement by a Peruvian climate change official, Eduardo Durand:  “The whole world is waiting for the United States,” Durand said, in reference to the U.S.’s ability to lead in addressing climate change as a global security threat.

The national security-climate change frame is by definition U.S.-centric, and takes advantage of post-9/11 concern for the nebulous concept of homeland security; human security threats are defined in terms of how they might increase geopolitical instability and breed extremism.  But on the ground, especially in developing nations, the foremost threats of climate change impacts are to human welfare, environmental life-support systems, and sustainable development.  This raises concerns for the world’s people that go far beyond immediate U.S. self-interest.

Because much of the brunt of climate change impacts will be borne by the most vulnerable, those impacts will remain far away from the U.S. public for years to come. At the same time, the current energy system that supports the American standard of living is a major contributor to the problem.

As the international negotiations process stands, the failure of U.S. political will is a major obstacle in achieving steep emissions cuts, and to providing the necessary funding to assist developing countries in adaptation.  With media coverage of climate change in decline, how do we bring home the immediacy of the issue and help build that political will?  How can we overcome what currently appears to be the unwillingness of Americans to focus on and deal with the global implications of their actions?

Earlier posts

U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing: in implementing the Cancun Agreements, the U.S. will be the focus of global attention

Dr. Ben Santer and Chris Mooney on communicating climate science

AMS Climate Briefing Series takes on national security implications of climate change

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