David Rothkopf

Actually, global warming is a major national security threat

Actually, global warming is a major national security threat

Yesterday Steve Walt offered a post on this site called “National Security Heats Up” in which he took on a recent CNA Corporation study that suggested that climate change was an important new national security issue for the United States, Walt argues that this study overstates the threat for the United States. 

His basic thesis is that because some of the biggest potential problems cited are far away they are not U.S. problems. Migratory pressures in Bangladesh that might be caused by rising sea levels are offered as one example. Walt makes the point that this is really a problem for India to handle, that we should beware the trap of inserting ourselves into every problem (which he associates with a Madeleine Albright “indispensable nation” worldview), and that most DoD studies inflate risks anyway (’cause that’s the self-serving thing to do.)

While I can’t argue with any of these points — India should take these threats more seriously than they have to date, we shouldn’t insert ourselves into every problem, and DoD funded risk assessments tend to have a “sky is falling” tone to them. But the central thrust of Walt’s piece — that global warming is not a major national security threat to the United States, is just wrong.

First, there are the immediate consequences associated with potential sea level changes in our neighborhood. As one Bahamanian minister once said to me, “For you, a shift of a foot or two or three is something you can adjust to. For us, it is a matter of life and death. If some of the estimates are to be believed, we won’t exist as a country.” Well, don’t take the most dramatic estimates. A modest shift in sea-level will have new waves of immigrants pounding at our doors too … from the Caribbean, from Mexico, from Central America.

Next, we will have our own issues in states like Florida where much of the population lives very close to sea-level. Permanently inundating coastal regions aside, spotting every incoming hurricane a foot or two of sea-level is going to have big costs whether it is in retaining walls, levies or post-disaster relief.

Third, global warming will produce major consequences for agriculture as climatic conditions change, droughts increase, etc. Food shortages and increases in the cost of food are another likely consequence that we will feel here at home, in our neighborhood and in volatile regions where we have vital interests.

Similarly, if glaciers melt, much of the power capacity of regions like Latin America dwindles. If warming produces reductions in the availability of water, an already critical situation, — perhaps two-thirds of the world’s people are already predicted to live in water-stressed environments in the next several decades — will get worse. Competition for water is already an issue in parts of the Middle East that don’t need any more fuel doused on their flames … and this is going to be an issue in critical regions first.

The list goes on. Food shortages. Economic setbacks. Water competition. Refugee movements. Resulting tensions between states. High costs of mitigation. Walt is right to approach the report and even the motivations for it with some skepticism. And he is right to suggest the United States cannot and should not assume burdens that are rightfully those of other countries. 

But he goes too far when he when he suggests that the primary consequences will be humanitarian and thus this is not really a security issue but a “philanthropic” one. If there were some other threat that was likely to increase tension in the Middle East or South Asia, likely to cause massive immigration in coastal regions worldwide, likely to have a major impact on the vulnerability of the world’s poorest (thus creating unrest and opportunities for populists to exploit instability), and to do so while stressing our own resources and testing our own borders, it would definitely be considered a significant national security threat.

I think there is a bit of a bias among “serious” national security scholars against “soft” issues like global warming. But count the wars that have started over food shortages, resource competition, migration, and related issues and you will see there is nothing soft about threats of this nature and there have been very few threats of this scope. For these reasons, it is in my view dangerously short-sighted to dismiss the concerns the CNA Corporation report rightfully highlights.

MARCEL MOCHET/AFP/Getty Images