Unleashing the Furies

The nascent field of environmental security better be ready for prime time, because this front-page NYT story on Sunday is sure to inject the national security/climate change nexus into the public debate.

It’ll be interesting to see how the leading environmental security advocates respond to John Broder’s NYT article. (Keep an eye here and here.) I’ll wager that they are overjoyed by the sudden spotlight but also nervous about having to defend climate change as their premier issue. To understand their dilemma, all you need to do is read Broder’s opening graph:

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.

Guess what: violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics already occur without climate change. (They always have throughout history.) Now throw in shaky governments, civil wars and terrorism. All these volatile forces, in some combination, adds up to what many nation-states face daily.  The problem, according to environmental security advocates, is that U.S. policymakers and military planners haven’t focused enough on the environmental side of the equation. True, that’s slowly changing. But it’s also not so easy to tease out the multiple factors responsible for a country’s descent into disorder and assign which is most responsible.

Hopping aboard the climate change bandwagon makes that task much easier. It’s risky, though. Some environmental security experts, such as Geoff Dabelko, recognize this:

While climate change is expected to exacerbate conditions that can contribute to intrastate conflict, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of conflict. For example, simply labeling the genocide in Darfur a “climate conflict” is both wrong and counterproductive: 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. To fully understand how the conflict between  Sudanese pastoralists and agriculturalists reached this extreme, we must not only examine the interplay between environmental issues like desertification, drought, and declining agricultural productivity, but also political relationships, power struggles, and ethnic grievances

What should be of more immediate concern to Dabelko and his colleagues, which they are likely waking up to this morning, is how quickly their work will become political fodder in the furious climate policy debate. Witness for example, the two responses published hours after Broder’s story appeared, from two people who represent the extreme ends of this debate. (See here and here.)

Interestingly, the person who has best analyzed Broder’s story (so far) is Andy Revkin over at Dot Earth. Part of Broder’s piece discusses how the security angle is being used to sell pending cap and trade legislation in Congress. But as Revkin notes,

Even if the legislation took effect and emissions were curtailed, the world would still see disruptive pressures building in places already facing severe drought and flood risks with or without the added kick from greenhouse warming. Africa’s population could easily double by midcentury, and recent research has shown that its most volatile region, along the south flank of the Sahara, faces the inevitability of epic droughts.

Revkin thus sets the stage for the focus of the next Times story on climate change and national security: adaptation.

One Response to “Unleashing the Furies”

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    Correction:  Joe is nowhere close to one extreme of the debate.  Note e.g. his points of disagreement with Hansen, who himself is hardly an extremist.  Lovelock probably fills that bill.

    Re adaptation, I’d love to see such an article in the NYT, but I think we won’t.  Worst-case monsoon failures in Africa and India would result in refigee surges in the nine-figure range, and I think most people would just rather not discuss such things.

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