U.S. Military Must Respond to Climate Change’s Security Threats, Argues Air University ProfessorApril 1, 2008 By Wilson Center Staff
“Africa is especially vulnerable to climate change, with many African states already suffering varying degrees of famine and food scarcity. Climatic changes could push these states toward failure and collapse,” writes John T. Ackerman in “Climate Change, National Security, and the Quadrennial Defense Review: Avoiding the Perfect Storm,” published in the Spring 2008 Strategic Studies Quarterly. Ackerman argues that climate change could cause a large-scale breakdown of natural ecosystems, which could destabilize or collapse weak, impoverished states. Terrorist organizations operate most effectively in weak or failed states, so it is clear that climate change poses serious traditional security threats, in addition to nontraditional ones.Ackerman asserts that climate change could cause four varieties of security challenges: traditional, irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic.
- Traditional challenges—which the U.S. military is currently best-equipped to address—include droughts, floods, and heat waves, which are set to increase in frequency and severity.
- Irregular challenges are nonlinear, and their timing or severity is therefore often unexpected. Examples include ocean acidification; mass migration due to environmental causes; and the unintended negative side-effects of geo-engineering schemes to mitigate climate change (such as installing 50,000 reflective mirrors above the atmosphere to deflect incoming sunlight).
- Disruptive challenges threaten or eliminate the United States’ and other developed countries’ advantages. Examples include famine, changes in water quality or quantity, and pandemic disease.
- Catastrophic challenges include melting ice caps, mass extinctions, and state failure. The archetypal catastrophic challenge among the U.S. traditional security community is terrorists’ use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the United States. Ackerman believes a one-to-eight meter rise in sea level (resulting from the partial or complete melting of the polar ice caps) or a temperature rise exceeding 1.5 – 2.5 degrees Celsius (which could cause widespread plant and animal extinctions) could produce comparable harm to the United States as a WMD attack.
Taking a reasoned and critical eye to current U.S. military thinking, Ackerman urges the Department of Defense (DoD) to “embrace a broader conception of security that incorporates environmental and climate concerns, focuses on the long-term, and emphasizes sustainability.” He calls this broader conception “sustainable security.” More generally, he argues that “all activities using US instruments of power [must] be unified to create sustainable security by peacefully spreading democracy, encouraging economic cooperation, and leveraging the cooperative functions of international organizations.”
The DoD receives the largest share of the U.S. government’s budget and is the single largest U.S. consumer of energy—although less than 10 percent of the energy it uses is derived from renewable sources. With these realities in mind, Ackerman calls for the DoD to aggressively embrace environmentally sustainable technologies and practices. The DoD possesses enough purchasing power that its new commitment to long-term sustainability could jumpstart the production of environmentally responsible products in both global and domestic markets. “The DoD’s existing approach to the natural environment is shallow and unremarkable,” says Ackerman, mincing no words.
Ackerman also calls on the DoD to be attentive to issues of political and social equity. Many countries that could desperately use U.S. military assistance with infrastructure and basic services projects distrust the U.S. military’s motives. “In sum,” he concludes, “democracy, prosperity, and security cannot counter the long-term threat of climate change without environmental sustainability and social justice.”