The issue of climate change as it relates to national security has been mentioned in security strategies for years, but it’s never received top priority.
However, recent events indicate that change is on the horizon: A report authored by 11 retired military generals (emphasizing the importance of integrating the security consequences of climate change into national defense strategies), new legislation in the House and Senate, and an approved proposal for a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) are all signs that the concern is gaining traction.
The essence of the issue is that climate change affects the stability of regions, and unstable regions often breed global threats. Kent Butts, director of national security issues at the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, says that climate change has grabbed the attention of military leaders over the past couple of years.
“The scarcity of safe water is a major factor in regional instability,” says Butts.
A government that can’t provide for the needs of its people loses legitimacy and invites political instability.” Butts says that could come in the form of a terrorist group claiming to provide basic needs and services that the existing government can’t provide, or an extremist political party trying to oust more moderate parties.
For that reason, Butts says, it’s important for CSOs to examine potential instabilities in regions where their companies operate. “They might be responsible for security in a region directly affected by drought, flooding or waterborne diseases,” he says. “Or they might be affected if they were in a country dealing with increased migration by refugees fleeing climate change.”
A recent op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by Anna Eshoo, chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management, echoes Butts’s claim. “Land loss from rising sea levels in low-lying Bangladesh could increase border tensions with India if millions of people attempt to flee to higher ground,” she writes.
“Extended drought has been cited as a contributing factor to conflicts in Darfur and Somalia. And any combination of climate-related stresses can help turn a fragile state into a failed state, which, we all learned on 9/11, can become a breeding ground for terrorists.”
In May, the charity Christian Aid released a report predicting that climate change will displace up to 1 billion people by the middle of the century.
According to the report, which is based on U.N. population and climate change figures, as more people are affected by water shortages, famine and conflicts (especially in the Sahara belt, the Middle East and South Asia), the number of refugees, which is currently estimated at 155 million, is expected to rise considerably.
Eshoo and Butts both say the NIE — an assessment, supervised by the National Intelligence Council, on the geopolitical and security implications of global warming — is necessary.
Part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy is to address underlying issues that terrorists seek to exploit, says Butts. “It’s not just identifying an organization and destroying them. Since environmental issues are complicating that equation and multiplying existing tensions, it’s a fair topic to be addressed by the intelligence community.”