Security and Climate Change: Why We Need a Deal in Copenhagen

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference begins this week in Copenhagen, we find a less than encouraging environment for climate legislation in the United States. The House of Representatives narrowly passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (Waxman-Markey) by a vote of 219-212. The companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Boxer-Kerry has been pushed back on the political agenda due to the health care debate and the jobs summit, and the president has indicated that his next priority will be financial reform.

Compounding this crowded congressional schedule is U.S. public opinion on the issue. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that there has been a remarkable decline in the number of Americans who believe that there is solid evidence for global warming—a mere 57 percent compared with 71 percent who said they believed in global warming just a year earlier. Nonetheless, despite this decrease in belief that global warming is occurring, the vast majority of Americans—88 percent—is in favor of the United States taking some action to control emissions. Indeed, 56 percent believe we should cooperate with other countries, while 32 percent believe we should take domestic action alone. However, the perception that the American public is not on board in recognizing climate change as a concern needs to be addressed if there is any prospect of climate legislation proceeding.

Some in Congress now indicate they would like to postpone a vote on climate legislation until after the mid-term elections in 2010, out of fear of a public backlash against an affirmative vote. Obviously, such a postponement would make President Obama’s pledge to cut U.S. emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, largely an empty promise. However, the root of the problem for inaction by the United States is arguably not the members of Congress, but rather the people they represent.

Perhaps one explanation for this lack of urgency among the American people is how climate change is being presented by political leaders and the media. Too often we are bombarded with reports of the supposed costs of addressing the issue through such mechanisms as cap-and-trade (higher electricity prices, loss of jobs, loss of competitive edge, etc.), but rarely are the costs for inaction raised. Climate change is not simply an environmental issue that we can try to address at some cost, small or large, balanced against consideration for a strong economy, jobs, energy security, national security, etc. It is, and will increasingly become, a key consideration to solving all of the aforementioned issues. Climate change could have profound impacts on U.S. security and costs to the American taxpayer, such as replacing and rebuilding infrastructure damaged by severe flooding or storms, lack of access to water due to droughts in areas such as the Southwest, and our ability to produce wheat and grain in the farm belt—not only to feed ourselves but also the rest of the world.

Military leaders, for example, are beginning to take notice of what a world that has warmed by 2 degrees centigrade or more would mean for their operations. At a basic level, naval bases will be severely affected by projected sea level rise. Perhaps more dire will be demands placed upon the U.S. military and other forces around the world, as people are forced to move due to degraded environmental conditions. Scientists are projecting that the “third pole”—the Himalayan glaciers—are retreating at an accelerated rate and could be gone by 2035. These glaciers are the source of water for seven of the region’s main rivers, and provide water to billions. The threat of water scarcity due to the glacial melt is a cause for concern for security and stability in the region. Conflicts between China and India over water rights have already arisen and could worsen; India is constructing a wall to keep out millions of potential “climate refugees” from Bangladesh; and the prime minister of the Maldives is looking for land for his citizens in India for the time when the Maldives will eventually vanish into the sea.

The Brookings Institution, along with other prominent think tanks, such as Chatham House and IES, is participating in a project to raise the awareness of the security implications of climate change in the hopes that this added voice from the military community could help sway the public opinion on the issue and clear the path for serious action.