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The Climate Variable

World Militaries Grapple With New Security Calculus

Mar. 29, 2010 - 03:45AM   |  
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Last month saw the publication of two key strategic documents, one in the United States and the other in the United Kingdom, that acknowledged a new variable in assessing threats to global security. Rather than originating from a geographic region, this new variable is the shared challenge of global climate change.

Within its 20-year time horizon, the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) said that climate change, when coupled with other destabilizing trends, "may spark or exacerbate future conflicts" and called it "an accelerant of instability."

Likewise, the U.K. publication known as a Green Paper identified the key questions that a future U.K. defense review will address. It stated that climate change was one of five major trends that will impact international security and "is likely to be most severe where it coincides with other stresses, such as poverty, demographic growth and resource strategies."

In national security terms, climate change is best thought of as a threat multiplier, a term coined by the Center for Naval Analyses in 2007. Climate change will amplify the impact of some of the world's most difficult and common challenges, including the spread of disease and scarcities of food and water. These stresses, exacerbated by climate change, will challenge the institutional capacities of government across the board, including the military.

In some developing nations, the resources of local militaries are already overburdened by the frequent need to respond to natural disasters caused by extreme weather. The magnitude of the challenges will depend upon the world's ability to mitigate the amount of climate change. Consequently, the leaders of our respective nations have recently agreed to the goal of limiting global temperature rise to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

Climate change will have a particularly severe impact in sections of the world already facing those stresses where we see a confluence of weak governments and existing conflict - areas through which much of the world's trade passes. Climate change-induced water and food scarcity could spur changes in migration patterns in areas where tensions already run high. With 600 million people living less than 35 feet above sea level, rising waters could cause massive displacement of populations, and could devastate crops and property.

We have both concluded that our militaries have a role to play in fostering efforts to assess, adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. The first step involves partnering with other government agencies in environmental security initiatives, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response training. Military-to-military engagement may be particularly suited to build the preventative capacity of vulnerable nations to respond effectively to natural disasters, reducing the risk such crises can pose to state stability.

Second, in recognition that defense infrastructure will be affected by a changing climate, the United States and the United Kingdom are beginning to study their military installations to identify those at the greatest risk and develop adaptation plans.

Third, both nations are increasing efforts to improve energy efficiency of their bases and operating forces, and to spur development of innovative energy technology. The armed forces recognize that their dependence on energy is a strategic and operational vulnerability that must be addressed.

Current military operations must continue to be our highest priority, but we also have a responsibility to assess the future security environment, including the impacts of climate change and other key trends such as energy, demographics, economics and science/technology. We must understand the security implications of climate change and how it will affect our missions and tasks. We need to ensure that we have the appropriate capabilities to be effective in the 21st century, taking every opportunity to reduce energy dependence.

Such an understanding is essential to make informed decisions and tradeoffs, and is entirely consistent with our longstanding missions to prepare for and prevent future conflict.

Rear Adm. Neil Morisetti is the U.K.'s climate and energy security envoy, and Amanda Dory is U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.

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