U.S. Must Lead: Climate Change Poses Direct Threat to American Security

July 9, 2009

National security experts and retired military officials are in agreement that climate change poses a threat to our way of life, to the global order, and even to how we keep ourselves secure. This week’s G-8 summit, which sought to advance climate negotiations prior to meetings in Copenhagen in December, saw developing countries reject binding emission targets out of fear that it would stifle their development, as well as out of a sense that rich developed countries – the principal culprits of global warming – weren’t doing enough. They are right and wrong. Transfers of clean technology from rich to poor countries should ensure that development is not impeded and poor countries, which are likely to be disproportionately affected the fallout of climate change, have every interest in ensuring aggressive action is taken. However, emerging economies are right that rich developed countries – especially the United States which is the largest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases – have not done enough. Those countries are attentively watching events in Washington to see whether there is truly momentum for action.  After eight years of denial and dithering by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has now aggressively sought to revive international climate negotiations. But to forge an international agreement that comprehensively tackles climate change, the United States must lead by example. The House of Representatives recently took a hugely important step in passing climate change legislation, but the legislation now looks to be bogged down in the Senate. If the impact on our way of life and the generations that follow us isn’t enough, Senators should recognize that their inaction has important consequences for our diplomacy and security.  

Climate change negotiations at G8 summit embrace goal but break down on methods – highlighting the challenge ahead.  The Group of Eight industrialized nations and a group of 17 emerging economy partners agreed on a goal – to limit warming by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – but failed to endorse long-term targets for cutting emissions levels.  The Los Angeles Times reports: “Inability to bridge the gap between rising carbon-emitting countries such as China and the longtime polluters within the G-8 underscores the steep challenges involved in attempting to strike a comprehensive bargain to contain global warming.” The New York Times goes on to report that “emerging powers refused to agree because they wanted industrial countries to commit to midterm goals in the next decade and to follow through on promises of financial and technological help for poorer nations.” According to the New York Times, the impasse over setting targets for 2050 “demonstrated again the most vexing problem in reaching a consensus on climate change: the longstanding divisions between developed countries like the United States, Europe and Japan on one side, and developing nations like China, India, Brazil and Mexico on the other. While the richest countries have produced the bulk of the pollution blamed for climate change, developing countries are producing increasing volumes of gases. But developing countries say their climb out of poverty should not be halted to fix damage done by industrial countries.”  Objections from developing countries suggest that unless the U.S. is prepared to lead by example, climate change negotiations will continue to flounder.  Developing countries “are unwilling to take the first steps to cut emissions that could choke off economic growth, instead demanding that wealthier nations take the lead,” said the Los Angeles Times.  Princeton Geoscientist and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change participant Michael Oppenheimer remarked, “China’s not going to do anything until the developed countries send a signal that they’re going to do something.” [LA Times, 7/09/09. NY Times, 7/09/09]

Climate change poses a severe threat to the U.S. and the world. 
A broad consensus has emerged among national security experts that global warming is a national security threat. In 2007, a study endorsed by 11 retired generals and admirals and conducted by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) concluded that “Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security. The predicted effects of climate change over the coming decades include extreme weather events, drought, flooding, sea level rise, retreating glaciers, habitat shifts, and the increased spread of life-threatening diseases. These conditions have the potential to disrupt our way of life and to force changes in the way we keep ourselves safe and secure.” A more recent report by CNA on energy security argues that “climate change goals should be clearly integrated into national security and military planning processes.” Last year, a joint report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) described conditions arising from global warming, including intensifying “tropical cyclones” that force resettlement in the Coastal U.S., “water shortages” in Mexico, “which will drive immigration into the United States,” and rising sea levels in the Caribbean.  Climate change also carries the potential to exacerbate violent conflict.  A 2007 report by International Alert (IA) warns of “a real risk that climate change will compound the propensity for violent conflict, which in turn will leave communities poorer, less resilient and less able to cope with the consequences of climate change.” The report emphasizes that 46 countries, containing 2.7 billion people, are at high risk from the dual threats of climate change and violent conflict.   The confluence of problems brought about by climate led the National Intelligence Council, in its recent Global Trends 2025 report, to argue that global warming was one of three major threats that could destabilize the international system. The NIC warned that climate refugees, resource wars, and an increase in destructive weather events could all undermine American and international security.  [CNA, 2007. CNA, May 2009. CNAS & CSIS, 11/07. IA, 11/07. Global Trends 2025, 11/08]

After years of denial and dithering, Obama administration seeks to make America a leader on the international stage – which means leading by example at home. The New York Times notes, “The Europeans may be yielding their global leadership on climate policy as the United States and China – the world’s two largest carbon-dioxide polluters – display signs of seeking a bilateral deal the rest of the world might be obliged to accept.” But with only middling results from the G8, it is clear that the momentum for change needs to come from Washington – specifically, from the Senate.  Newsweek reported yesterday that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I think in many ways success for us is going to be getting something through Congress and to his desk that puts in place a system, market-based system that lessens the amount of greenhouse gases in the air.” Other countries are watching the debate here closely as well.  For example, earlier this month Reuters reported that, “Australia’s emissions trading laws look more likely to pass a hostile Senate after U.S. Congressional support for a similar climate bill eroded political opposition in Australia to carbon trading.  Analysts said the passing of the Clean Energy and Security Act by the U.S. lower house on Friday has forced Australia’s Liberal/National opposition coalition to rethink its policy of stalling the passage of emissions trading laws.” And as Erwin Jackson of the Australian think tank the Climate Institute writes, “When the United States follows suit, we will join our ally in taking up both the most important problem of our time and moving forward down the most viable economic path before us.” However, the climate change legislation that passed the House now looks to be stalling in the Senate. Senators need to come to grips with the urgency of the situation, as UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen Chair Connie Hedegaard explained, “The need for sweeping action is indisputable, for the science is very clear that we need to curb emissions now. Each year of delay will mean yet more radical action later on. And delay may even push us beyond a critical tipping point.” [NY Times, 7/7/09. Newsweek, 7/8/09. NY Times, 7/9/09. Reuters, 7/2/09. Center for American Progress, 7/7/09. The Hill, 7/06/09. UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen Chair Connie Hedegaard, 7/01/09]

What We’re Reading

Iranian security forces confronted protestors chanting “Death to the dictator” during another wave of demonstrations in Tehran. Authorities had warned that protests would be met with a ‘crushing response,’ and have banned all gatherings.

A double suicide bomb attack killed at least 34 people in Iraq.

Saudi Arabian special security courts convicted 331 people of al-Qaeda-related terrorist activities in the first known trials of members of the group in Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.

The IMF said the world economy is pulling out of the recession, marking up its growth forecasts for next year and hinting it might reduce its estimates for bank losses.

Deposed Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya vowed not to negotiate in the discussions planned for Thursday.

China detained an Australian executive from Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, on charges of spying.

Rebiya Kadeer, a Uigher woman living in exile in the United States, has become the symbol of the Uigher resistance to China.

The U.S. military freed five Iranian diplomats held since 2007. The US had claimed that the individuals were not diplomats but members of the Iranian Revolutionary guard, and accused them of arming, funding and training Shiite militias in Iraq.

An truck explosion in Afghanistan killed at least 25 people, including 16 schoolchildren.

Sri Lanka told the Red Cross that the war between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels is over, and instructed them to scale back operations. Five Sri Lankan doctors claimed that they had exaggerated the civilian death toll of the war.

Protests were planned in Cairo over the murder of an Egyptian woman dubbed the “headscarf martyr,”
who was killed in a German courtroom by a man convicted of hate crimes. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will offer condolences for her death at the G-8 summit.

Commentary of the Day

Joe Cirincione writes in the Huffington Post that after speeches in Prague, Cairo, and now after the summit in Moscow, we are witnessing the emergence of an Obama Doctrine.

The Washington Post argues that the best way to defeat Manuel Zelaya and preserve democracy in Honduras is to allow the deposed president to return.

Wu’er Kaixi, a Uigher living in exile in Taiwan, writes that Beijing wants to send a brutal, zero-tolerance message to the Uighers, the greater Chinese population, and the outside world that dissent will be met with force.

Philip Taubman urges the White House to assert its position on arms reductions in the face of potential opposition from the Pentagon and Congress.

Nicholas Kristof wonders why humanitarian aid hasn’t been more effective.

Bookmark and Share