Insecure About Climate Change

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Joshua W. Busby
From the Council on Foreign Relations
Saturday, March 22, 2008; 12:00 AM

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Americans witnessed what looked like an overseas humanitarian-relief operation. The storm destroyed much of the city, causing more than $80 billion in damage, killing more than 1,800 people, and displacing in excess of 270,000. The country suddenly had to divert its attention and military resources to respond to a domestic emergency. While scientists do not attribute single events to global warming, the storm gave Americans a visual image of what climate change -- which scientists believe will likely exacerbate the severity and number of extreme weather events -- might mean for the future.

The large, heavily populated coastal areas of the United States are vulnerable to these kinds of extreme weather events, suggesting homeland security will require readiness against climate change. Moreover, scientists tell us that poor countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia, are the most vulnerable. They are likely to be hit hardest by climate change, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people on the move from climate change-related storms, floods and droughts. In such circumstances, outside militaries may be called on to prevent humanitarian tragedies and broader disorder.

A number of recent studies have begun making these kinds of links between climate change and national security. My report for the Council on Foreign Relations goes further, focusing on what should be done in three main areas: risk reduction and adaptation; mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions; and institutional changes in the U.S. government.

Risk Reduction and Adaptation. Sadly, some climate change is inevitable. The U.S. needs to "climate proof" its domestic infrastructure including military installations, particularly along its coasts, to ensure it is prepared to withstand and respond to extreme weather events. As Hurricane Katrina showed, investments in risk reduction are likely to be much cheaper than disaster response. I support substantial investment in risk reduction: coastal defenses, building codes, emergency response plans, and evacuation strategies, among other measures. I also recommend enhanced vulnerability assessments to know where the risks are.

These are "no regrets" measures that are warranted in the unlikely event climate change proves to be less of a problem than feared. Internationally, developing countries need tens of billions, yet the U.S. government has done very little to support this agenda. I recommend several activities to help developing countries prepare for climate change, including $100 million (over several years) for military-to-military environmental security workshops. I recommend another $100 million per year to support an African Risk Reduction Pool, a common fund from which Defense, State, and other agencies would draw from to support security in Africa. These expenditures would be part of a broader international risk reduction effort that I argue should be on par with the president's five-year, $15 billion emergency plan for AIDS relief.

Strategic Climate Mitigation. We cannot adapt our way out of this problem. Unless the world significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century, climate change will exceed even many rich countries' adaptive capacities. To that end, we need to reach agreement among the major emitters, most importantly China and India. Whether or not they remain on good terms with the United States will depend, in part, on how we handle their aspirations for respect and needs for energy. Handled badly, U.S. relations with China and India could sour. Handled well, the U.S. can reduce greenhouse gas emissions cost effectively, support clean technology exports, satisfy their energy demand, and solidify a more constructive relationship.

Institutions. Climate and security concerns do not get the attention they deserve in the U.S. government because they have few high-level champions. A new deputy undersecretary of defense position for environmental security should be created to redress the insufficient institutionalization of climate and environmental concerns in the Department of Defense. That said, we should not confuse national defense with what the military can do. As the risk reduction agenda makes clear, other instruments of national power will also be needed. To that end, the U.S. needs several senior positions in the National Security Council dedicated to environmental security, including a Deputy National Security Advisor for Sustainable Development to guide the inter-agency process. The links between climate and security still might not get sufficient attention. A special advisor to the president on climate change with some budgetary authority might also help.

The policy proposals presented in my report have the potential to strengthen national security by reducing U.S. vulnerabilities to climate change at home and abroad, securing and stabilizing important partners, and contributing to other goals such as energy security and industrial revitalization. In a world of new security challenges, forging a climate policy along these lines must be a national priority.

Joshua Busby is an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay is based on his recent Council on Foreign Relations special report on climate change and national security.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity