Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Strategic Impact of Climate Change

In coming years, the US military expects that Climate Change will post a significant challenge not only in the US political system, but also for US strategic and security efforts.  While the US's wealth will help to mitigate the effects of Climate Change in this country, it will have significant impacts on the rest of the world which will destabilize nations and entire regions, cause population movement, and create resource competition which will all lead to new strategic risks and unpredictable threats.

According to the 2014 QDR, "Climate change poses [a] significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."  These are serious threats that will require effective policy responses from the US in order to maintain the current global system with minimal economic disruption or loss of life.

The QDR does highlight some of these efforts. "The Department will employ creative ways to address the impact of climate change, which will continue to affect the operating environment and the roles and missions that U.S. Armed Forces undertake. The Department will remain ready to operate in a changing environment amid the challenges of climate change and environmental damage. We have increased our preparedness for the consequences of environmental damage and continue to seek to mitigate these risks while taking advantage of opportunities. The Department’s operational readiness hinges on unimpeded access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, we will complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on our missions and operational resiliency, and develop and implement plans to adapt as required.

Climate change also creates both a need and an opportunity for nations to work together, which the Department will seize through a range of initiatives. We are developing new policies, strategies, and plans, including the Department’s Arctic Strategy and our work in building humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities, both within the Department and with our allies and partners."

Implementing policies to effectively deal with Climate Change may be more difficult than identifying the problems, however.  In an interview with Responding to Climate Change blog, Army Brigadier General Chris King (ret.) stressed the military's concerns about implementing effective responses to climate change.“This is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years. That’s the scariest thing for us,” he told RTCC. “There is no exit strategy that is available for many of the problems.  You can see in military history, when they don’t have fixed durations, that’s when you’re most likely to not win.”

King cites as areas of particularly concern countries which area already facing severe environmental and economic challenges, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad, Somalia, and Sudan.  According to RCCb, “These countries, already suffering from localised conflicts, famine and drought, could be placed under intense stress by the impacts of climate change.”  These impacts will likely include higher temperatures, less access to ground water, and lower levels of precipitation.  Weak institutions and governance would prevent governments from responding effectively to new crises, leading to further violence and destabilization.

US leadership will be critical to a strong and effective global response to climate change--and US defense policy will be a key component of that leadership.  This is important not only as a global humanitarian concern, but also to ensure the longterm safety and access to resources of the American people.

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