The generals to the rescue? The security facet of climate change

22 Mar

Failures in food and water security, natural disasters, and progressive degradation of ecosystem goods and services are all factors that can act to undermine human security and threaten the health and sustainability of communities and entire nations. – CSIRO, 2006

If generals and national security ministries around the world become convinced that climate change menaces their state will it be enough for them to push through meaningful action on climate change? NGOs can be ignored or brushed aside; environment ministries often wield little concrete power, but the military is a game changer. When the generals get involved, we may see serious movement on climate change, and quickly.

Climate change threatens to spill over into the security sector as climate-spawned hardships threaten weak, vulnerable or failing states. Asia, which features both great vulnerability as well as many states with significant security apparatuses, is therefore vulnerable as well as liable to see its militaries start to take notice. In a wide-ranging study, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) found that throughout Asia, 62% of all climate change impact assessments were negative, 20% mixed and only 19% positive. All of the negative scenarios – from coastal erosion to disease spread to food and water insecurity – have security ramifications. In the words of Bangladeshi Major General Muniruzzaman, climate change is a “threat multiplier” that will “add significantly to existing tensions” (his presentation can be read in full at right). In areas with significant impoverished and marginalized populations, whether the slums of Mumbai or the rural D.R. Congo, this “threat multiplier” effect is particularly dangerous. These populations could seriously threaten internal security if their already precarious position further deteriorates from climate pressures such as:

  • saline intrusion into groundwater (as already happens in Bangladesh)
  • refugees fleeing sea level rise (occurring in Vietnam)
  • falling rice yields (predicted to occur throughout Asia)
  • spreading disease vectors
  • economic duress from the above disasters

One military figure, U.S. Brigadier General W. Chris King (ret), was able to find a key area of commonality between climate change and security. His Environmental Security Analysis found a strikingly high level of statistical correlation between state failure and a basket of environmental factors such as forests, arable land and water quality. Put simply, the more the environment in country X suffers, the more likely it is to slide into civil war, insurrection or outright failure. Fortunately, military assets worldwide are starting to get it.  A widely circulated report on climate risks and national security by the CNA Corporation quotes officers throughout the U.S. military. The consensus is clear: climate change is real, and it is a threat. High ranking figures throughout the armies of India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Australia have all voiced concern. Insidiously, the threat will not be the same for each country: Vietnam’s top concern may well be sea level rise whereas Bangladesh is most threatened by cyclonic storms and saline incursion.

Few of the countries PisaSpeak regularly examines are on the verge of collapse. Neither China nor India nor Vietnam is likely to implode in the wake of a single disaster. But, faced with rising environmental threats and demographic pressures, a deteriorating security sector is possible in any country; these are no exceptions. In the U.S., which even amid a severe recession is still the world’s economic heavyweight, this lesson is well taken. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated not only New Orleans’ economy but sent shocks through the nation’s energy sector because of subsequent damage to offshore oil and gas platforms. This winter’s severe East Coast storms that disrupted economic activities for weeks similarly fall into projected expectations for more severe weather as the global climate changes. In the face of economic threats and internal security woes, this may prove to be an area of hope and progress. Given the common hazards of sea level rise, declining crop yields and powerful storms, cross-border military cooperation may blossom in regions where it is now a rarity. If Indian and Pakistani generals can find common ground on adapting to climate change it will prove to be a scarce—but hardly unwelcome—upside.

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One Response to “The generals to the rescue? The security facet of climate change”

  1. Pete May 21, 2011 at 6:29 am #

    Meaningful action on climate change pushed through by the military? really?

    Isn’t the US President the Commander in Chief?

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