from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Debating the Links Between Climate Change and National Defense

June 21, 2011

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Climate Change

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I’m a big fan of Bruno Tertrais, a French scholar (and a friend) whose work on nuclear security I’ve long respected. In the new issue of The Washington Quarterly, Bruno stretches his horizons to pronounce judgment on widespread claims that climate change will drive armed conflict in the coming century. His essay, “The Climate Wars Myth” (PDF), contains some important cautions to those who too glibly assert that climate change is a big security problem, and is well worth reading. It goes too far, though, in dismissing some of the real concerns that people have.

Let me start with the overstreches, which are disappointingly frequent. Bruno writes early on that “history shows that ‘warm’ periods are more peaceful than ‘cold’ ones”, which he explains by noting that “all things being equal, a colder climate [historically] meant reduced crops, more famine and instability.” But projections of future climate change – which go beyond temperature increases – anticipate reduced crops. By his logic, this should lead to more conflict, not less.

Bruno also criticizes arguments about the relationship between extreme events and conflict by pointing out that projections of increases in extreme weather depend on models. But this is no reason, in itself, for defense planners to not be concerned. Projections that increased proliferation of nuclear weapons will result in greater risks of catastrophic conflict are also based on models, but that is no reason for strategists to not take that possibility seriously. Simiarly, Bruno focuses on median estimates of sea level rise, and then dismisses the possibility that sea level rise could become a severe problem. Yet defense planners cannot simply look at the most likely futures – they must also plan for the most problematic ones.

I suspect these sorts of flaws will turn off many people. That would be a shame, since the essay makes a series of important points. Some are just tidbits that aren’t clearly of huge consequence. Bruno notes early on, for example, that scarcity does not always lead to conflict, and that the reverse can happen too: as he writes, “at the borther of Kenya and Somalia, conflicts are more numerous when the resource (pastures) is abundant”. This makes sense: resource wealth can fuel aggression and can also be a target for it.

More importantly, he also observes, I think correctly, that too many projections of the security consequences of climate change are made in a political and security vacuum. He trains particular attention on predictions of conflict in a melting Arctic, arguing that “the attitude of all neighboring states regarding this region, including Russia, reflects a clear preference for settling possible disputes in accordance with accepted international law”. I might actually go further than he does. The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid direct armed conflict for four decades when the future of the world was at stake. It is not clear why they would have a more difficult time managing conflict over uncertain resources of oil and gas.

It’s the essay’s final point, though, that stikes the strongest chord with me. Bruno asks a big question: “Is Climate Change Even Relevant to Defense Planning?”. This is not the same as asking whether climate change is a defense problem: as the essay acknowledges, “it is not unreasonable to state that climate change may be a ‘threat multiplier’,” as so many do. But for that to become relevant to defense planning at a significant level, it must lead to meaningful changes in procurement, doctrine, strategy, or something similarly important. It is not clear that it does in most cases. The expectation that there will be more migrants in (and from) Africa, victims of natural disasters in Southeast Asia, or tensions over water in a host of different regions, may not ultimately make much of a difference to acquisition plans, troop deployments, or the like. It is quiet possible to have a significant defense problem that ought to have limited impact, at least in the near term, on defense planning. Climate change may be such a case.