State of the Planet

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Climate & Terrorism – Linked?

Dennis Blair is a serious man. A retired, four-star admiral with a legendary knack for water skiing behind his warships, the multi-talented Blair currently serves as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) under President Obama. This position oversees the 16 national intelligence agencies, coordinating their efforts while informing the policy makers – including the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council. Described as “brainy” and “cerebral”, the former Rhodes scholar has received distinction for his 34-year career in the Navy – including eight medals for outstanding service – and has been decorated by five foreign countries.

When Blair talks, people listen.

Which is why his “Annual Threat Assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee”, released this February, demands to be taken seriously. In a sprawling report, Blair enumerates all the national security threats that he and the Intelligence Community feel the United States is facing, including the economic crisis, nuclear proliferation, and – perhaps a surprise to some – climate change.

Citing IPCC, Blair’s report concludes that projected climate changes will impact drought, agricultural productivity, food security, and incidences of vector-borne diseases. Coastal and deltaic regions are particularly at risk – especially in countries with weak adaptive capabilities. The confluence of these stressors – when combined with already weak central governments – can lead to de-stabilization and political turmoil.

Insurgent and extremist groups can gain political footholds by preying on a weak government’s inability to provide basic services. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah organization garnered public favor in 2006 by providing hot meals and medicinal supplies in the aftermath of the bombings. The Taliban has recently been highlighting the lack of healthcare services in Afghanistan, thus undermining the central government and propelling their resurgence in the region.

Limited access to water in the drought-prone areas of Middle East – already a concern – will provide further stress on the region and open the door to inter and intra-state conflicts. Blair expects climate change will intensify these conditions.

Domestically, America has the wealth and infrastructure to adapt to changing environmental stress, although the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed that our own response to extreme weather events was far from perfect. That said, Blair considers that the primary challenges America will face are the indirect effects from abroad: the climate-driven exacerbation of pre-existing issues in developing states.

A report published in 2007 by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) entitled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” echoes similar concerns. The report identifies climate change as a “threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile and trouble regions in the world”. The de-stabilization of fragile countries opens the door to radical ideologies and extremism – environments potentially conducive to terrorism. Retired Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, one of the eleven flag and general officers on the CNA’s military advisory panel, goes so far as to state that the conditions produced by climate change will extend the war on terror.

So what’s to be done? The CNA urges the US to assume a stronger international role in promoting climate change mitigation – the process of reducing anthropogenic emissions and enhancing natural sinks – with the goal of stabilizing the climate before it reaches dangerously unmanageable levels. However, the international peace-building organization International Alert asserts that it is not mitigation so much as adaptation that we should be concerned with.

Authors Dan Smith and Janani Vivekananda state in their report “A Climate of Conflict” that climate change is already upon us, and that even with massive international cooperation and immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the initial effects – drought, sea level rise, natural disasters – will continue to unfold over the upcoming decades. Adaptation is crucial, not only among the international and regional networks (UN, EU), but particularly at the local community scale. Policies must be designed with the goal of securing action and energy from the local leaders and authorities where most climate-driven changes will occur.

Community-based climate adaptation has helped Malawi farmers deal with worsening crop cycles
Community-based climate adaptation has helped Malawi farmers deal with worsening crop cycles

Community-based climate adaptation can take many forms. Farmers in Malawi have had to contend with poor harvests and diminished crop cycles for the past several years, yet they remain an example of what community-driven adaptive measures can accomplish. The non-profit group ActionAid has been working with a local women’s right organization, the Salima Women’s Network on Gender (SWNEG), to promote coordination and cooperation among regional farmers. By pooling tools and information, the farmers have been able to remain secure despite worsening crop conditions.

Although the effects of climate change have been discussed for the decades, the national security consequences have only recently been examined. It’s true – the relationship between climate change, terrorism, and national security is not yet fully understood. The science that we have is not 100% certain. However, the possibilities of these consequences cannot be ignored.

As General Gordon Sullivan puts it in the CNA report, “We never have 100 percent certainty. We never have it. If you wait for 100 percent certainty, something bad it going to happen.”

Photo Source: Find Your Feet – a UK-based, international development charity dedicated to helping poor and rural communities, particularly in India and Malawi.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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15 years ago

the connection that’s drawn between climate and terrorism, by way of weak institutions, poor governance, and poverty, reminds me of the National Security Strategy of the USA, 2002:

“The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”

it also reminds me of the development-security paradigm that underpins the newest US military command center, AFRICOM.

at least nominally, AFRICOM seeks to pair with civilian and non-governmental organizations to address the root causes of insecurity. it would be interesting if climate change, and adaptation to climate variability, were among them. since AFRICOM is not yet a year old, it will be interesting to see how this strategy develops.

14 years ago

[…] Democrats have swapped the term “cap and trade” for “pollution reduction and investment” in the climate bill now facing an up-hill battle in the Senate. Sponsors of the bill, including Senator Kerry, D-Mass., have re-branded the bill as “The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act”, framing climate change mitigation as a security and economic obligation. Senator Kerry says that energy independence is a necessary condition for national security. For more discussion on climate as a security risk see earlier blog posting. […]

13 years ago

[…] the broader, indirect effects of climate change on our societies, economies and political systems. National security, for instance, will face a variety of new challenges as temperatures rise. Experts anticipate […]