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The Coming Conflicts of Climate Change

Author: Michael L. Baker
September 7, 2010

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As Pakistan continues to struggle with flood devastation, U.S. national security experts are considering the long-term effects of the disaster. Among the concerns are the Pakistan government's stability, opportunism by extremist groups providing relief, and the impact on the U.S. war effort in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S. forces depend on smooth supply lines through Pakistan.

The case of Pakistan reflects how natural disasters can weigh on U.S. national security considerations. Interest in these types of contingencies is such that the U.S. Navy recently conducted a gaming exercise at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, to study scenarios where the Navy might have to support U.S. or international relief efforts to help maintain regional and global stability. In each scenario, a climate-induced disaster (or disasters) triggered catastrophic death tolls, migration, and panic affecting regional or global security and spurring the UN Security Council to issue a humanitarian response resolution. This was the first time the Navy had conducted a gaming exercise to determine how to respond to climate-induced challenges. This unique effort brought together climate scientists, water experts, health practitioners, logisticians, diplomats, aid workers, and military officers to think through possible response options.

The exercise follows a real world trend of Navy support for humanitarian aid missions and responses to natural disasters at home and abroad.

Irregular Challenges

The Navy and the other U.S. armed services, of course, do more than fight wars. They serve in a variety of capacities to support the country's interests against what the Navy calls "irregular challenges"--risks emanating from a host of problems that may affect not only state security but also human security and that don't necessarily involve manmade threats.

Catastrophic floods or increasing desertification can pose severe challenges for local populations and national governments and may carry regional or even global ramifications. What's more, if these irregular challenges go unchecked, they could lead to large-scale international conflict as states compete for dwindling resources, populations migrate en masse, or governments seek to deflect domestic pressure onto neighbors.

[I]f these irregular challenges [caused by climate changes] go unchecked, they could lead to large-scale international conflict as states compete for dwindling resources, populations migrate en masse, or governments seek to deflect domestic pressure onto neighbors.

With this in mind, the U.S. Navy is contemplating partnerships with other militaries, especially where maritime crime, epidemics, or other disasters are likely to cause destabilization. The goal is to develop a system for collectively addressing "irregular challenges" such as tsunamis and earthquakes, epidemics, or narcotics and human trafficking--challenges that strain governments and local populations alike, often without respecting international borders. President George W. Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy stressed that responding to natural disasters was important for national security; but President Barack Obama's first National Security Strategy and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) go a step further, with the former making climate change a national security priority and the latter pointing to the potential for dangerous conflict that could arise from the effects of climate change.

South Asia Flashpoints

Perhaps nowhere is this more concerning than in South Asia. Aside from floods in Pakistan, consider the ramifications of years of flooding due to the rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas. Those mountains are a primary source of water for people in Nepal, India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; flooding damages crops, carries water-borne disease, and forces migration. If the glaciers completely melt, the region's rivers will experience considerably lower flow and could see a far worse fate: "desertification." The Indus River is particularly critical: It's Pakistan's longest river, but it flows from the Himalayas and then through India before reaching Pakistan. Pakistan is guaranteed a certain amount of water through the Indus River Treaty, but India still controls that flow. Add to that tension the risk of rising sea levels forcing the migration of millions of people living along the coastal regions of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and the picture turns even darker.

If catastrophes resulting from these sorts of climate change aren't handled through multinational cooperation early on, they may spark intense competition for water resources, humanitarian relief, and international aid funds. These threats could also draw into question the territorial integrity of the region's states--among which are three nuclear powers. The United States needs to begin a consultative process with other states' security and relief agencies on how to mount rapid responses to such irregular challenges, or it could face the tricky prospect of deescalating tensions amidst the threat of climate-induced state collapse.

The State Department and the Office of Foreign Disaster will have to take the lead on these sorts of challenges, bringing to bear their experience in humanitarian relief and diplomacy. But OFDA and State can't do it alone. Washington needs to give serious attention to the ability of the military services to create global partnerships that can lend credible support to meeting the challenges posed by climate change.

A Fleet Response

The Navy's budding "partnership" programs in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia offer a glimpse of the Navy's potential to fill this role. These programs grew following the Navy's contribution to relief efforts during the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. After that disaster, the U.S. Navy reaffirmed that it had an important role to play in supporting relief missions and in helping to maintain stability during large disasters. When this idea was coupled with the threat of piracy in the Strait of Malacca, the Navy realized that it needed to forge strong partnerships with local navies and coast guards to help promote regional and global stability in the maritime commons and meet a host of challenges. Through its international partnerships, the Navy conducts operations to counter activities like piracy (witness the task forces off the Horn of Africa), narcotics trafficking (with ongoing operations alongside the U.S. Coast Guard in Central America), or illegal fishing (the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership in West Africa). And its global deployment allows the Navy to quickly respond to crises in any region of the world.

For instance, among the first responders to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was the USS Gunston Hall, an American amphibious ship en route to West Africa as the lead vessel of an international effort to improve sustainable maritime security in Africa, called the "Africa Partnership Station." Just days before the Haiti earthquake, sailors loaded the Gunston Hall with a wide variety of humanitarian goods and medical supplies for its mission in West and Central Africa. The nature of her cargo enabled Gunston Hall to play an important role in the relief efforts, delivering crucial food and medical supplies and producing 72,000 gallons of fresh water per day. But the international makeup of the crew also offered a key capability. The foreign sailors and officers on board Gunston Hall provided important cultural and linguistic expertise to help reassure the local population and communicate with local leaders.

Additionally, the Navy has institutionalized the planning, policymaking, and budgeting processes that address irregular challenges and climate change through the Navy Irregular Warfare Office, headed by Rear Admiral Phil Greene, and the Navy's Task Force Climate Change, led by Rear Admiral Dave Titley. The Air Force and the Army (especially the Army National Guard) can also bring considerable capabilities to these challenges, especially in terms of logistics and communications.

Any military security cooperation plans forged by the United States should incorporate crisis response activities with key states--such as those highlighted above in South Asia--that are prone to natural disaster. This is not only prudent planning; the skills shared with foreign militaries through this type of partnership tend toward enhancing logistics, communications, interoperability, civil-military relations, and command and control. All are important elements for professional military personnel to master, providing them with the tools to support disaster assistance teams.

The popular debate surrounding "global warming" is rife with emotion and has paralyzed U.S. policymakers. Military planners, however, remain divorced from the emotional content of the topic, looking at possible future scenarios and conducting planning to address the associated challenges and threats arising from sharp changes in climate.

Creating military partnerships years before a crisis allows countries to collectively respond when a catastrophe occurs and offers a reasonable avenue for political and cultural dialogue crucial to avoiding inter-state conflict. This is true for a variety of "irregular challenges," including the possible risks due to climate change.

*The views expressed are solely those of CDR Michael Baker, USN, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the Council on Foreign Relations.

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