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Climate Change: A Threat to National Security


Over the past few years, there has been an increase of discussion in the press around the world on the links between climate change and terrorism. Activists and scientists alike have spread a critical message when broaching the topic: “Let us be clear – no act of terror is due to climate change, but climate change has helped to create the conditions from which terrorist groups can plot and plan.”[i] Just as those trying to point to any one cause of terrorism are wrong, those who ask what single thing is the “greatest threat” to national security are asking the wrong question. An excellent contemporary example of climate change pushing a nation into further conflict is Syria and their civil war. “Climate change did not cause the conflicts we see around the world,” Barack Obama said in 2015, but “drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria.”

The geopolitical consequences of climate change are determined by how it affects and interacts with local conditions as much as climatic shift itself. For example, a changing climate act, such as a drought or tsunami, can be an accelerant of instability around the world, increasing tensions related to water scarcity and food shortages, natural resource competition, underdevelopment, and overpopulation. Scholars have also noted that “with every flood or bout of extreme heat or cold, the jihadists would reappear, often supplementing their sales pitches with gifts.”[ii] The near-term impacts of climate change are likely to have disproportionate effects on developing countries with weak governing structures, particularly in Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East. Namely across rural Iraq and Syria, farmers, officials, and village elders tell similar stories of desperate farmhands swapping backhoes for assault rifles. Therefore because the U.S. is a global power with strategic interests around the world, climate change is strategically important to the U.S. through the impacts it has on the regional stability of allies.[iii]

Climate change is an independent variable, but its impacts will be profoundly interwoven with other variables that both increase and decrease security. For example, it will cause an increase in the frequency of disaster relief responses by U.S. and allied military forces. There has been an increasing deployment for extreme weather events and disaster relief, which has become a frequent commitment. Key relief-related “policy issues likely to be of concern in the 114th Congress include budget priorities, levels of funding, sources of other support available worldwide, and the ways in which operational assistance is delivered.”[iv] However, relief operations are often daunting regarding the demands of those in need, from life-saving action required to the provision of food and shelter. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response since there are large areas with diverse populations and ecosystems. Jentleson acknowledges the security threats of “global warming and associated climate change could pose threats of the ‘EMD’ magnitude.”[v] Jentleson also agrees with the Intelligence Community that global climate change will have extensive implications for U.S. national security interests over the next twenty years, especially since the United States is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases in the world.[vi]

The most significant factor when looking at whether or not global environmental issues are worth looking into is the around “300,000 deaths, negative effects on another 325 million people, and economic losses of $125 billion each year to disasters related to climate change.”[vii] In line with support for environmental disaster relief is support of improved global health, especially in the “developing world” as Jentleson says.[viii] But even though the number of deaths or the negative effects of those impacted is what should take priority, the reality is that the number attached to the dollar sign is what begins turning politicians’ heads for policy changes. Jentleson breaks down the six types of policy challenges regarding the analytic frameworks include: class problem of “public goods” and “collective action”; the balance between environmental and economic priorities; North-South equity complicating global environmental negotiations; enforcement; the environment being a peace and security issue; and the dilemma of prevention and trade-off between immediate costs and future benefits.[ix] Nonetheless, global climate change isn’t the only pressing environmental issue when taking into consideration ocean acidification, biodiversity, desertification, deforestation, air pollution, urbanization, and the list goes on and on.

First and foremost, the U.S. needs to implement deep emission cuts. According to an Independent Task Force Report, the United States accounted for approximately 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other country aside from China.[x] Although a variety of scientific, business and environmental groups have supported the reduction of emissions path in the United States, the extremely ambitious goals set by Congress are out of the hands of ordinary people. Therefore, to identify the productive potential of success, these goals need to be economically reasonable, assuming flexible and carefully designed policy, particularly given the magnitude in which climate change has been discussed.

A similar initiative the United States should take when addressing the immediate quantitative need for climate change is to increase a broader range of action and leadership. First, by not taking an early leadership role the United States could be giving up opportunities to create jobs in new industries, strengthen energy security, and rebuild critical alliances. Without stepping up to the plate, the U.S. won’t have any leverage in moving the rest of the world towards environmental policies in a way that could be most beneficial for the United States. In fact, if the United States lags any longer without taking a more prominent position, other countries could impose tariffs on emissions-intensive U.S. exports as some in Europe have already threatened to do.[xi] The Independent Task Force Report also states that “precipitous action and inflexible policy would entail dangerous economic risk – but, as the Task Force has already found, efficient, equitable, and adaptable climate policy would make those risks far smaller.”[xii] Leadership can be seen as the government placing a uniform price on emission since that would pick technological winners and losers in making people pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. However, prior to the United States building a strong foreign policy initiative towards environmental issues, namely climate change, it must focus on strong domestic policy to prove their stance to the rest of the world.

There is a growing conversation in International Relations surrounding global environmental policy. During a time of development technologies growing at a rate of an upward slope, they could make reductions far less expensive in the future. However, the amount of nations responsible for greenhouse gas emissions overshadows the conversation by pointing fingers to who one nation or a group of nations thinks is responsible. Despite that, focusing on the greenhouse gasses themselves should be the center point of conversation. “There are six basic greenhouse gases and more than 180 countries,”[xiii] but approximately 80 percent of the world’s emissions are carbon dioxide. Similarly, the more developed industrial countries contribute to “roughly three-quarters of global CO2 emissions”[xiv] mainly falling on the United States, European Union, and Japan along with Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Russia. Therefore, not only is it more reasonable but it is also more possible for these countries, particularly the United States, to cut their carbon emissions rather than expecting developing nations to reduce theirs. Addressing the developed countries is a simple first step while waiting for developing countries to catch up to advancements. Accordingly, the United States could pay developing countries for their emissions reductions, counting towards their binding targets of greenhouse gas emissions while contributing to the leadership on a world scale. This targets-with-trading system is not a new idea but allows for a country to pay for a permit to exceed its target while other countries receive payment for emissions that fall below their targets.[xv]

Another initiative the United States should partake in is the international cooperation in research, development, and demonstration of climate-friendly technologies for national-level efforts. However to do so, “the United States should help develop and maintain international regimes of laws and institutions that organize international actions in various domains.”[xvi] Making international development a higher priority will serve as an important step towards a global public good. In a section of Jentleson’s book, Joseph S. Nye Jr. makes a point that many of the poor people around the world are surrounded by disease, poverty, and political instability. Therefore, “large-scale financial and scientific help from rich countries is important not only for humanitarian reasons but also because even remote countries become outposts of disorder for the rest of the world.”[xvii] Hence, the United States can provide an essential public good by being the liaison between developing countries and environmental sustainability goals worldwide. Similar to the initiative of leadership and setting an example, the United States could help shape the international order in ways that are beneficial to us as well as other nations.[xviii]

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