While it is now widely acknowledged that environmental change, including climate change, could severely undermine security in the developing world, the implications for the developed world are just starting to be discussed. A sort of “developed-country complacency syndrome” has led many to assume that the main security problems for a country like the United States, such as waves of refugees or the need to intervene when other nations face disasters or conflicts, would be imported from abroad. Unfortunately, the United States is likely to face some fairly severe “Made in the USA” problems, as well.
For instance, as the economic stimulus package is rolled out, the United States is entering a historic period of new infrastructure construction. From a security perspective, this could help maintain stability, or it could be a disaster. What might make the difference is assessing how potential sites could be affected by environmental change. Transportation systems, defensive capabilities, agriculture, power generation, water supply, and more are all designed for the specific parameters of their physical environments—or, more often, the physical environments of the Victorian, Depression-era, or post-WWII periods in which they were originally built. That is why unplanned environmental change almost always has negative impacts.
In the case of a change in precipitation patterns, for example, drainage systems, reservoirs, and hydrological installations can all fail not because they were poorly engineered, but because they were engineered for different conditions. We are literally not designed for environmental change. Current environmental impact assessments look almost exclusively at a structure’s impact on the environment. These assessments must now be expanded to include the other half of the equation: the impact of a changing environment on the structure. These sorts of “dual” assessments are essential. To put it bluntly, there is no point in building a zero-emissions house in a current or soon-to-be flood zone. However, this is exactly the sort of thing that is being proposed in areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast. We can avoid this by requiring these “dual” assessments when applying for insurance, planning permission, and/or government support.
Just as physical infrastructure is poorly prepared to deal with environmental change, so, too, is legal infrastructure. Very few regulations, international laws, and subsidies incorporate the effects of environmental change. At best, this renders them inadequate; at worst, it can create new vulnerabilities.
For instance, the U.S. government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) can inadvertently contribute to putting people and infrastructure in harm’s way. When private insurers deem areas too risky to be eligible for coverage, the NFIP can step in and insure them, making it possible to build in areas that are current flood zones, as well as areas that may become ones as climate change causes sea levels to rise and storm surges to increase. Already in some areas the same homes have had to be rebuilt multiple times, in part with cash infusions from the NFIP.
There are other examples of developed-world agreements that may cause more damage than they prevent:
Water-sharing agreements, especially those based on a set amount of water, rather than percentage of actual flow, will become problematic as water levels alter dramatically.
Fisheries-sharing agreements will be thrown into chaos as fish shift to other regions due to climate change and overfishing.
Hydropower-sharing agreements will be a major problem, both for precipitation-fed systems and glacier regions, where there will be above-average flows as the glaciers melt, followed by droughts once the glaciers disappear.
Legislation, agreements, and subsidies that do not account for environmental change can create artificial and unnecessary vulnerabilities at a time when the world is facing real physical challenges. It is imperative to assess existing and new legal frameworks in order to determine whether they create strengths or vulnerabilities. If they are found to create vulnerabilities, they must be adapted or abandoned.
Two of the things the developed world prides itself on—its physical and legal infrastructures—are both highly vulnerable to environmental change. However, the stimulus packages and the reassessment of global, regional, and national agreements caused by the financial crisis offer a valuable opportunity to ensure that the structures and mechanisms we are counting on to maintain our security do not end up undermining it.
Photo: Members of the Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Disaster Response Team and the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team mark a house to show it has been searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, revealed the vulnerability of U.S. infrastructure to natural disasters. Climate change could make hurricanes and other natural disasters more frequent and severe. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tidewater Muse and Petty Officer Robert M. Reed.