The week of April 16th will go down as climate and security week. Monday found us in a fancy hotel ballroom within the shadow of Capitol Hill where eight former three-and four-star U.S. generals and admirals made a plea for more aggressive U.S. action on climate change. It was not a bunch of granola chomping, tree-huggers arrayed across the stage. Instead it was in front of 20 American flags that General Gordon Sullivan USA (Ret.) said in introducing the report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change
: “We are not your traditional environmentalists.” Gordon, former Chief of Staff of the Army and chair of the CNA Corp’s Military Advisory Board
, ran quickly through the group’s findings and recommendations before each of the seven other senior officers drew on their particular backgrounds and tailored how they viewed climate change as a security threat.Former Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman USN (Ret.), the submariner, said not planning for climate change made about as much sense as not planning for a hostile underwater environment.
General Charles Wald (USAF) Ret., who worked extensively in Africa from his deputy commander post in European Command, spoke of the resource pressures and instability he witnessed in West and East Africa – factors likely to become more challenging security threats with sea level rise and prolonged droughts.
Admiral Joseph Prueher USN (Ret.), former Commander of Pacific Command and U.S. Ambassador to China highlighted sea level rise implications for population and business centers like Shanghai and Navy bases like San Diego and Norfolk. He went on to say the U.S. can’t tackle the climate change problem alone, necessitating deeper engagement with key players like China and India.
Many of the officers emphasized that the panel “wanted to move beyond the debate over cause and effect” in climate change. As military men, they stressed they were accustomed to making important decisions with incomplete or uncertain information. They called on policymakers to do the same in the climate realm.
Three other senior officers on the Military Advisory Group weren’t in Washington that day. One of the missing members, General Tony Zinni USMC (Ret.) gave a very dynamic NPR interview that was also generating a buzz among those who follow these issues. Zinni has been making the case for linking environment and security for at least eight years. It was as Commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) in 1999 that Zinni said at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington that he wasn’t doing his job as head of CENTCOM if he was not following environmental and demographic issues as both threats and opportunities in his theaters of operation (North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia).
One day later the spotlight shown on the shore of the East River at the United Nations. The United Kingdom, chair of the Security Council in April, sent Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett to oversee the Council’s first consideration of climate change as a security threat. The session was not without its disagreements.
Beckett emphasized that climate change posed threats beyond the “narrow” sense of security to threaten “collective” security of the international community and human well-being. The UK, France, Italy, the Secretary-General, and some developing countries such as Ghana, Panama, and Peru, highlighted the extra stress placed on already vulnerable populations in developing countries where pastorlists and agriculturalists already compete for scarce land and water. They suggested more of these conflicts would likely become (more) violent. Papau New Guinea representative, speaking on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum, stressed that climate change posed a fundamental security threat – to their sovereign territory and their people.
Lining up against the Security Council considering climate change as a security issue were China, Indonesia, South Africa, and Pakistan speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China. The countries acknowledged the tremendous challenges posed by climate change but situated them as sustainable development, not security issues. They argued the more representative UN General Assembly and UN Economic and Social Council, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and multilateral treaties in general were the more appropriate forums for debate. China emphasized the “common, but differentiated responsibilities” language found in the Framework Convention on Climate Change – a reminder that the developing world expects the developed countries who have contributed most to the greenhouse gas emissions to go first and move aggressively on mitigation.
The United States seemed unable to make up its mind and fell back on its familiar script of “it is all about goverance and state capacity” that it uses in just about every occasion on environment and development issues. Singapore’s representative shared the G77 and China reservation on the Security Council playing a key role on climate change, but suggested it still should have “some sort of a role, because it seems obvious to all but the wilfully blind that climate change must, if not now, then eventually have some impact on international peace and security.”
On Wednesday April 18 it was back to Washington where General Gordon Sullivan testified before the Select Committee On Energy Independence And Global Warming of the U.S. House Of Representatives. Sullivan laid out concisely the Military Advisory Board’s four findings and five recommendations:
- First, projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security;
- Second, climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world;
- Third, projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world; and
- Fourth, climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.
- First, the national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies;
- Second, the U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability;
- Third, the U.S. should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts;
- Fourth, the Department of Defense should enhance its operational capability by accelerating the adoption of improved business processes and innovative technologies that result in improved U.S. combat power through energy efficiency; and
- Fifth, DoD should conduct an assessment of the impact on U.S. military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other possible climate change impacts over the next 30 to 40 years.
What it will add up to is unclear. What is clear is that political space has been created for discussing climate and security’s links as part of the larger momentum for debate on climate change opened up by a tangled mix of factors: the new IPCC report and other scientific findings, An Inconvenient Truth, state action in the US, EU renewable energy targets, Hurricane Katrina, European heat waves and floods, high gas prices, faith-based efforts (What would Jesus drive? He wouldn’t, he’d walk.) Climate and security is now on the agenda – the challenge is now to find practical steps for a variety of actors to take to help break the negative links and grasp opportunities presented.