Visiting Garmisch, Germany, is not exactly hardship duty. The snowy peaks of the German Alps are visible well before arriving at this Bavarian skiing haven, located 88 kilometers south of Munich. But this is no typical vacation paradise: Garmisch is home to the joint U.S.-German George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
, a leading security and defense educational institution, and its College of International and Security Studies (CISS). For the past 15 years, the Center has brought together security officials from militaries, intelligence services, and ministries for dialogue and education. These collaborative programs help security experts develop and maintain crucial personal connections with their counterparts in other countries.
At the Fall 2007 “Program in Advanced Security Studies” course at CISS, representatives from 34 countries met in the classroom during the day, and, perhaps just as importantly, in the local watering holes at night. The 12-week course, filled with traditional topics such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and asymmetrical warfare, ended with a curveball this December: The capstone lectures, meant to provoke students to look beyond traditional security concerns, focused on climate change. On December 3, 2007, three of us—Wolfgang Seiler of the Fraunhofer Institute for Atmospheric Environmental Research
in Garmisch, Alexander Carius of Adelphi Research
in Berlin, and I—did our best to mix things up.
Seiler led off with an energetic and sweeping presentation on the latest climate science, and proceeded to outline the likely social, economic, and agricultural effects of higher temperatures, intensified storms, changing precipitation patterns, and rising sea levels. He urged Europeans to start addressing this fundamental challenge by recognizing the inadequacy of their own climate change mitigation activities, rather than simply pointing fingers at the United States.
Carius unpacked the findings of a major climate and security study by the German Advisory Council on Global Change. He used the case of Central Asia to walk the more than 160 students through climate change’s expected impacts on regional water supply and their larger social, economic, political, and security implications. For the next few decades, melting glaciers will provide Central Asia with adequate water. But as they continue to recede, this water supply—so critical for agriculture and energy in the region—will diminish greatly. Any government—let alone the relatively new countries of Central Asia, which consistently fall in the World Bank’s lowest quartile of governance rankings—would struggle to prepare for and adapt to this impending water scarcity.
In my remarks, I urged security officials around the world to abandon the stereotype that climate change and other environmental issues are the preserve of tree-hugging environmental activists. In fact, climate change poses real threats that security officials have a responsibility to examine. To address concerns that climate science is too uncertain, I cited the parallel drawn by retired U.S. Army General Gordon Sullivan between making battlefield decisions with incomplete information and tackling climate change without precise predictions.
At the same time, I warned against overselling the links between climate change and violent conflict or terrorism. Climate change is likely to exacerbate conditions that can contribute to intra-state conflict—for instance, competition over declining resources such as arable land and fresh water, or declining state capacity or legitimacy—but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of conflict. Labeling the Darfur genocide a “climate conflict” is both wrong and counterproductive: It lets the regime in Khartoum off the hook and ignores proximate political and economic motivations for fighting. In the case of Darfur, examining climate change’s role in desertification, the long and deep drought, declining soil moisture levels, and declining agricultural productivity provides a fuller understanding of how conflict between Sudanese pastoralists and agriculturalists has reached this extreme.
I also suggested analyzing whether policy responses to climate change—such as the increased use of biofuels—could create new social conflict. The surge in palm oil cultivation in Indonesia, for example, is arguably accelerating deforestation rates and increasing the chances of conflicts between the owners of palm oil plantations and people who depend on forest resources for their livelihoods.
Small-group discussions ranged widely: European border control officials took great interest in potential increases in South-to-North migration flows from Africa and South Asia. Naval officers focused on the implications of an ice-free Northwest Passage in the Arctic, as well as sea-level rise that may swamp harbors and low-lying island bases.
As with all classes—whether constituted of military officers or not—some students couldn’t get enough of the discussion, while others were less inspired. I left with the impression that, like most military audiences, they did not welcome climate change as a new mission for security institutions. They perhaps recognized the need to study the potential impacts of climate change that may influence their traditional security concerns, even as they remained skeptical that climate change is as critical as some policymakers and researchers claim.