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Ann Carlson

Ann Carlson

Posted: December 4, 2007 07:58 PM

When Climate Change Becomes an Issue of National Security

Contrast these two Bush Administration positions. Yesterday, 10,000 participants began two weeks of meetings in Bali in an attempt to negotiate a new international agreement to limit carbon emissions quickly and dramatically. The Bush Administration -- which only recently decided even to send a delegation to the talks - has generously agreed that it will not "stand in the way of a new agreement." By contrast, after years of emulating the U.S., Australia has now agreed to join the Kyoto protocol, leaving the U.S. as the only developed nation that hasn't joined.

As the Bali talks got underway, Bush was simultaneously accusing Congressional Democrats of jeopardizing national security by refusing to pass his $190 billion war funding bill without strings attached. Which position - failing to exercise leadership to address global warming or attempting to condition war funding - is more likely to harm national security?

The case that rapid increases in the earth's temperature pose a serious risk to national security is a compelling one. Rises in sea levels and more frequent and intense sea surges and storms may result in massive land loss and homelessness for a large percentage of the world's population. Disease, hunger and malnutrition are likely to accompany this displacement. And displaced climate refugees may not confine themselves to their own borders, especially if sea levels consume large portions of vulnerable countries. Thus climate change could create refugee problems on a scale we've never seen before. With large refugee populations comes increased disease, especially if access to potable water is limited, increased internal strife and potentially civil and regional war.

Global warming will also lead to increased conflicts over resources, including food, energy supply, water and land. For example, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts decreases in freshwater supply in areas of the world dependent upon water from snowmelt and in semi-arid and arid regions of the world. That means less water for areas like southern Africa and the Middle East and increased risk of drought and crop loss. It isn't hard to imagine the regional wars that could break out over limited resources like water, particularly in vulnerable areas of the world like the Middle East and southern Africa. Retired General Anthony Zinni thinks, for example, that climate change could worsen the Palestinian-Israel conflict if water resources decline. (See Zinni's comments here.)

Dramatic changes in weather - alternating periods of drought and flooding, for example - may post additional security problems in the developing world. As a recent report called National Security and the Threat of Climate Change [pdf] warns, governments that are already unstable will become more so with extreme weather. This instability can create numerous problems domestically for vulnerable countries and pose real national security challenges for the U.S., which may be forced to provide military support for weakened regimes and may lose access to critical trade opportunities. And unstable governments can become havens for anti-U.S. terrorist activity.

Even areas of the world like the Arctic pose national security challenges to the U.S. from climate change. The National Security and The Threat of Climate Change report predicts that as much of the Arctic melts, large areas of the ocean that have previously been impassable will open up, requiring a greater U.S. naval presence.

Yet an administration that has made national security the cornerstone of its seven years in office has no strategy other than "volunteerism" to minimize the risk of increasing temperatures. It has offered nothing to reduce the U.S.'s contribution to the problem or to motivate other countries to do more. And it has done nothing to plan for the inevitable changes climate change will bring. As Bush chastises the Democrats for endangering national security, the world meets to address what may be the biggest threat of all with no leadership whatsoever from the leader of the free world.