Climate of Subtle Conflict

In the segregated world of Washington politics, environmentalists rarely cross paths with four-star generals. It’s not that these groups avoid each other deliberately; there has never been a compelling reason to seek each other out.

In light of this, last week’s release of a report by the CNA Corp. titled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” seems especially significant. It just might indicate the start of a new era of cooperation between military planners and environmental advocates. The report, backed by a panel of 11 retired three-star and four-star admirals and generals, summarizes the results of an eight-month study on the implications of climate change for the U.S. military and for the national security community more generally.

This is not the first time the Defense Department has grappled with the uncertain threat of global warming. In 2003, the Pentagon made headlines by commissioning a study on the security implications of abrupt climate change. But the authors of that assessment — including Peter Schwartz, a former head of planning for Shell Oil — found themselves the subject of some ridicule when they delivered a report that resembled a Hollywood thriller.

This report is more significant, more pragmatic and much timelier. By coincidence or not, the report was released only a week after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — an international body of professional scientists and researchers — released a report in which it concluded many consequences of climate change, once only speculative, have begun to emerge around the globe in subtle — and in some cases, not so subtle — ways.

Whatever scientific uncertainties remain, two conclusions — highlighted in both reports — seem virtually inescapable. First, current trends in temperature and water availability will continue in the near future, leading to a greater incidence of heat-related illness, severe drought and infectious disease. Because some additional warming is unavoidable — even if policies can be put in place soon to limit the atmospheric build-up of heat-trapping gases — these outcomes can no longer be wished away. Secondly, modest changes in temperature and water availability will be far more disruptive in poorer communities, where adaptive capacity is weak, than in more prosperous ones where adaptive capacity is reasonably robust.

In Africa, for example, between 75 million and 250 million people are projected to experience an increase in water stress due to climate change by 2020. In addition, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent in some regions over the same period. In other regions, and especially in Asia, even moderate sea level rise — a robust prediction of climate models — could threaten millions of coastal inhabitants.

By focusing on near-term probable outcomes, rather than on those that are more dangerous but less likely to occur in the next several decades, the CNA report provides a foundation upon which practical policies can be built.

In fact, the report advocates several policies that could be pursued today at limited cost. One example is a technology program that would make our military more agile and efficient but more resilient to changes in climate.

More challenging are the panel’s proposals to improve how our intelligence community anticipates emerging threats and our military responds to disruptive impacts in vulnerable regions. Successfully implementing such programs will require an unprecedented cooperation among subject experts, military personnel and indigenous professionals and a sophisticated appreciation for the ways in which climate, resources and culture interact.

There are some encouraging signs that our national security community understands the need for transformation. For example, the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review concluded that future military operations would require enhanced capability to understand “social and cultural terrains” as well as various dimensions of human behavior. Programs of this sort — if they could be expanded to include “environmental terrains” — might be employed in a dual-use capacity, supporting the global war on terror and preventing or mitigating environmentally induced conflict. Ultimately, indigenous cultural and environmental knowledge could be integrated into a global early warning system, detecting subtle changes that might signal instability and a need for intervention.

Such a program will require understanding and transforming our own military culture. The institutional barriers may be great, but what we have to lose is even greater. A posture of complacency only increases the likelihood of state failure and the possibility that our military — already stretched thin — could be thrust into the center of violent civil wars, costing billions of dollars and hundreds or thousands of American lives. Paradoxically, the stability of fragile cultures may depend on the flexibility of ours.