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EXCLUSIVE: U.S. military worries about climate change
Question of the Day
As a new administration committed to addressing climate change takes office, intelligence and defense officials are laying plans to address the national security implications of a warmer planet.
In recent months, U.S. military planners have discussed the impact on personnel, equipment and installations of extreme weather events, rising ocean temperatures, shifts in rainfall patterns and stresses on natural resources.
Among the concerns: 63 U.S. coastal military facilities and several nuclear reactors are in danger of flooding from storm surges, said Tom Fingar” href=”/themes/?Theme=Tom+Fingar” >Tom Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis.
President-elect Barack Obama next month will receive a key intelligence report, Global Trends 2025. Sources who reviewed the document for the government but asked not to be named said the report gives top priority to climate change.
The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a Pentagon-funded think tank, issued a report last year that called climate change a “serious national security threat.”
The U.S. intelligence apparatus has worked up the first national intelligence assessment to focus on the implications of climate change for U.S. national security by 2030.
“There is increasing attention on the hard security side of climate change, and officials in Pentagon” href=”/themes/?Theme=The+Pentagon” >the Pentagon are starting to take the topic a lot more seriously,” said Richard Moss, a climate-change specialist with the World Wildlife Fund.
Researchers say climate change poses a range of security concerns. They include:
Military installations. Coastal military facilities are threatened by rising sea levels and more frequent major, damaging weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes.
Although Mr. Fingar declined to give details apart from the number of installations in peril, a Pentagon official told The Washington Times that the Pentagon has commissioned a network of scientists to create a model for predicting the impact of storm surges and sea-level rises on military facilities on the Gulf Coast, in the Mid-Atlantic region and in Southern California.
The Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), the Pentagon’s environmental science and research program, is leading the effort. Its findings are expected to help the Defense Department better manage about 30 million acres of land under its care, said the Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Environmental refugees. Developing countries — already saddled with poverty, unresolved conflicts and poor governance — are at risk of more instability caused by people fleeing drought and catastrophic storms.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Lawrence Farrell predicted increased migration to more developed countries.
“Migrants from Africa will flow to Europe, while the U.S. will see migrants from Mexico, Central and South America,” he said.
Terrorism. Shifts in ecological systems are most likely in places that are already breeding grounds for extremism. In many African states, climate-related stresses are “a main contributor to instability,” Mr. Fingar told Congress this summer. “We judge that sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be the most vulnerable to climate change because of multiple environmental, economic, political and social stresses.”
Humanitarian intervention. As extreme weather events pummel more population centers, the Pentagon will increasingly be asked to provide humanitarian support. “More and more, climate change will require mass mobilizations of the military to cope with humanitarian disasters,” said Joshua Busby, assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
For the Pentagon, that means increases in large-scale logistics operations such as airlift, sealift and delivery of food, water and medical supplies. The Defense Department “has to ask if our forces are adequate enough to respond to several more Katrinas,” said retired U.S. Army Gen. Paul Kern.
Pandemics. As certain regions become warmer, researchers say, the range of mosquitoes and other disease- carrying insects will expand. “Pandemic diseases not only prompt humanitarian catastrophes, they can directly threaten deployed U.S. troops,” said Sherri Goodman, general counsel for CNA.
Arctic competition. Perhaps the most dramatic climate-related geopolitical issues involve a melting of the Arctic ice cap. Scott Borgerson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, reported in the journal Foreign Affairs this year that the area covered by sea ice shrank by more than 1 million square miles during summer 2007, reducing the size of the Arctic ice cap to half of what it was in 1958.
Nations bordering the Arctic, including Canada and Russia, are staking claim to the region’s oil and fishing resources, while commercial ships are seeking new Arctic routes that could shift the dynamics of global trade.
“This is not just a foreign policy issue,” said Gen. Farrell. “It is a national security issue.”
Environmental researchers say the next administration has to confront the problem head-on instead of simply preparing humanitarian responses. Mr. Busby said many risks should be handled through nonmilitary approaches, such as better building codes, early warning systems, drought-resistant crops, storm protection and sea walls, and reforestation measures.
“Climate change makes it more likely that we will either get multiple crises in different locations, or even multiple crisis in the same locations,” said Marc Levy, deputy director of Colombia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. “We’re in the early stage of living with climate changes, but as concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions rise, we stand to see the equivalent of what the army worries about with fighting multiple wars: a string of bad events, of landslides, tornadoes and hurricanes.”
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat who spearheaded efforts to convince Congress that the intelligence community should evaluate climate change as a security threat, said she is finally seeing shifts in official attitudes.
“When I brought the issue up, some lawmakers two years ago made fun,” she said. “They felt that a so-called environmental issue didn’t deserve to be blended with national security. But those attitudes are changing.”
Although multiple international studies link climate change to human consumption of fossil fuels, some scientists are skeptical about the connection.
“Most of the recent national-security-related reports examining the climate issue have taken the models from the U.N. at face value. They look at the worst-case scenarios and project what the impacts would be on national security without regard to the underlying data,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
Mr. Levy agreed. “It is helpful to have a degree of skepticism,” he said. “It’s our job as citizens to dig a little below surface and see how hard the evidence really is.”
Gen. Kern said time is of the essence.
“It’s the kind of crisis where you wake up and it has already engulfed you,” he said. “It is something that’s been moving steadily upwards. But because the change is gradual, and there’s been a lot of debate on the topic, people have tended to push it off.”
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