In the Spring of last year, the United States Senate Appropriations Committee requested that the Department of Defense provide a report that a) identifies the most serious and likely climate-related security risks for each Combatant Command, b) identifies ways Combatant Commands integrate risk mitigation in their planning processes, and c) describes resources required for an effective response and the timeline of resources needed. The report, which was released at the end of July 2015, was deeply troubling, and yet most of the United States legislation seems to have been completely unaffected by it, and the majority of United States citizens seem oblivious to its existence entirely.
The report begins by bluntly stating that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security (1). Climate change is already affecting the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water (2), and the scope, scale and magnitude of these impacts are projected to increase over time. The effects of climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S national security interests over the foreseeable future, as it will aggravate existing problems that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. These problems include poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions.
Climate change is thus seen as a security risk because of its impacts on human security and, more indirectly, the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations (1). Case studies indicate that in addition to exacerbating existing risks from social, economic and political fault lines, the stress from climate change can create new vulnerabilities, like food shortages and water scarcity, that can promote instability and conflict in situations not previously considered at risk. Meaning, for communities and states with weak and ineffectual leadership, limited resources, or social instability, the effects of climate change can be the spark that ignites an uncontrollable fire.
The Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC’s) of the Department of Defense divide the world into various Areas of Responsibility (AOR’s); though their strategies for dealing with the issues stemming from climate change differ based on what they are facing, they all identify the same four areas of climate related security risks (1). Persistently recurring conditions such as flooding, drought, and higher temperatures increase the strain on fragile states and vulnerable populations, including more frequent and/or more severe extreme weather events. These include flooding and damage to coastal areas due to sea level rise and temperature change, and the changing nature of security in the Arctic, due to decrease in ice cover, type and thickness (1).
The growing trend of recurring harsh conditions like flooding, drought and high temperatures has the capacity to dampen economic activity and burden public health. These problems limit agricultural and electricity production, alter known infectious disease patterns and create new ones, and increase respiratory and cardiovascular diseases (1). These changes, when severe enough, may force human populations to migrate within their state or across borders in search of places more supportive of life. Frequently, this ends with people moving out of rural, subsidence communities and into cities where resources necessary to harbor human life are more abundant. This movement of people has the capacity to greatly upset already vulnerable states. For example, let us look at the severe drought that affected Syria from 2006-2011. Between 2006 and 2009, severe drought caused agricultural failures that affected 1.3 million inhabitants of eastern Syria, and an estimated 800,000 people lost their livelihoods and basic food supports (3). During these three years, wheat and barley yields plummeted 47% and 67% respectively, and livestock populations were devastated (4). In 2011, the drought returned and worsened the situation. By the end of the year, the UN estimated that between 2-3 million people were affected, with 1 million of them driven into food insecurity (3). As a result, more than 1.5 million people, comprised mostly of family farmers and agricultural workers, relocated from rural lands to cities and camps on the outskirts of Syria’s major cities (3).
To say that the social unrest caused by these droughts was the reason for the eruption of the Syrian civil war would be incorrect; there were other complex issues occurring within the country at the time. However, to say that the drought was not a factor in illuminating the inequity of resource distribution, as well as the general dissatisfaction of many of the Syrian people, would be just as wrong. Escalating pressures on urban areas due to internal migration, increasing food insecurity and resultant high rates of unemployment were a catalyst for many Syrians to make their political grievances publicly known and contribute to extent and severity of unrest (5). The DoD predicts that these kinds of impacts in regions around the world could require a greater demand on their involvement in the provisions of humanitarian assistance and other aid, in order to prevent unrest from boiling over into violence as it has in Syria.
As extreme weather events continue to become more severe and frequent, the DoD will see an increase in demand on its services both at home and abroad. When countries lack the resources to provide aid to those affected by a natural disaster, substantial involvement of DoD units, personnel and assets for humanitarian assistance are often needed. For example, in 2010, Pakistan was hit by the worst flooding in the country’s recorded history, killing more than 2,000 people and affecting 18 million more (1). The United States responded by rescuing more than 13,000 people and delivering more than 5.4 million pounds of food to areas that would have otherwise gone unassisted (6). At the same time, the DoD is responsible for providing aid to disasters that hit at home, through the Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA). When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, over 14,000 DoD personnel mobilized to provide direct support, and at least 10,000 more supported the operation in other capacities, such as power restoration, fuel resupply, transportation infrastructure repair, water and meal distribution, temporary housing and sheltering, and debris removal (1). Nature doesn’t care about convenience, and it is entirely likely that powerful disasters could strike multiple areas abroad or at home in a relatively small time frame. Without proper preparation, aid provided by HADR and DSCA could be stretched dangerously thin.
The classic danger associated with climate change is of course sea level rise, and though it is constantly mentioned in public discourse, the gravity of the situation is perhaps not fully appreciated. If one looks at any country, they will find that populations tend to be particularly dense on the coast. Access to shipping, food supply and more fertile land makes coastal regions advantageous and thriving places. For example, the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta — encompassing 100,000 square kilometers and home to 130 million people — is the most populated river delta in the world (7). The deltaic plains of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Mneghna rivers compose most of Bangladesh’s land, with the majority of the coastal land at an elevation of less than 5 meters (16 feet). Throughout the Delta, local sea level rise had been recorded at as much as 25 millimeters (1 inch) per year; when combined with the natural sinking and settling of the land (subsidence), this poses a serious problem for the region (8). In addition to these factors, the human impact of activities like groundwater extraction allows seawater to creep inland and infiltrate water tables, displacing coastal plant and animal communities that depend on fresh or brackish water.
The salinization of ground water and the encroachment of seawater will also affect soil salinity, which can hinder crop growth. With the added pressure of rising temperatures, rice and wheat production in Bangladesh could drop by 8% and 32% respectively by the middle of this century (9). As a result, more than 3 million people stand to be directly affected by sea-level rise by 2050, and in a worst case scenario, Bangladesh could lose nearly a quarter of its 1989 landmass by the end of the century (10). As farmable land and other resources becomes more scarce, one can expect to see massive migration from rural land to cities like the capitol, Dhaka. One of the fastest growing cities in the world, Dhaka doubled in size between 1990 and 2005, from 6 to 12 million; by 2025, the U.N predicts that Dhaka will be home to more than 20 million, a population greater than that of Mexico City, Beijing or Shanghai (11). Without corresponding developments in infrastructure, a city growing this rapidly becomes a hot bed for social unrest and opens up new vectors for the spreading and propagation of infectious diseases, putting the entire country and region at risk.
No country is impervious to the forces of nature, the United States included. Sea level rise is of particular danger to not only coastal populations but military infrastructure as well. If the current rate of sea level rise continues, 128 military installations around the U.S will be at risk. By 2050, most of these installations will see more than 10 times the number of floods they experience today, and by the end of the century, half the sites could experience 520 or more flood events annually (12). One base of particular concern is Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval station in the world. The area of the base, commonly known as “Hampton Roads,” sits on the coast of the city of Norfolk, Virginia. Sitting just barely above sea level and sinking lower every year, the area already experiences hundreds of flooding events per year. The real risk comes from the potential damage a hurricane would have on the area if it were to make landfall there. Normally, powerful storms don’t make it that far up the coast, but as Super Storm Sandy showed, it is entirely possible. The effects of even a moderate category 3 storm could be devastating to the area, and a category 4 would likely see the entire city submerged in water (13). We are talking about the potential incapacitation or destruction of the United States’ largest naval base, and the subsequent mobilization of a massive fleet of ships. In terms of national security, many would see this as a serious blow.
As the climate continues to change and become more volatile, it is essential that governing bodies begin to take warnings like those of the Department of Defense more seriously. The United States needs to expand its definition of what national and international security looks like in the face of climate change, as we will continue to see that nature will always be a stronger force than even the most powerful military. The Department of Defense adamantly states in the end of their report that they see climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk. The impacts of climate change can currently be observed in shocks and stressors to vulnerable states and communities across the globe. Although climate-related stress will disproportionately affect fragile and conflict-affected states, the DoD also stresses that even reliant, well-developed countries are subject to the effects of climate change in “significant and consequential ways” (1).
For this reason, Combatant Commands are currently integrating climate-related impacts into their planning cycles. The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change will require cooperation, monitoring, analysis, and integration of those risks into already existing risk management measures. The responsibility now lies with the United States Legislative and Executive branches to provide the necessary resources and appropriations to the DoD, so that they can address these risks to the best of their ability. Furthermore, the DoD’s role here is to mitigate risks and address the “symptoms” of the overarching threat of climate change, and it is in the hands of the government and citizens of the United States to address the root causes of climate change, hopefully reversing or slowing the dangerous trends we currently are seeing.
For more information about changing security in the Arctic, see last week’s report titled “Creating Security in a Changing Arctic.”
(1) United States. Department of Defense. Undersecretary of Defense. National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and Changing Climate. N.p.: n.p., 2015. Print.
(2) United States. White House. National Security Strategy. N.p.: n.p., 2015. Print.
(3) Gleick, Peter H. "Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria." Wea. Climate Soc. Weather, Climate, and Society 6.3 (2014): 331-40. Web. 7 Aug. 2016.
(4) "Drought Vulnerability in the Arab Region: Case Study - Drought in Syria, Ten Years of Water Scarcity." ACSAD (2011): n. pag. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
(5) Saleeby, Suzanee. "Sowing the Seeds of Dissent: Economic Grievances and the Syrian Social Contract's Unraveling." Jadaliyya. N.p., 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 08 Aug. 2016.
(6) "Pakistan Flood Aid Tops 5 Million Pounds." Defense.gov. United States Department of Defense, 13 Sept. 2010. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(7) "Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta." Delta Alliance. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2016.
(8) "Sea-Level Rise in Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, Bangladesh | Global Warming Effects." Climate Hot Map. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2011. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.
(9) Faisal, I. M., and S. Parveen. "Food Security in the Face of Climate Change, Population Growth and Resource Constraints: Implications for Bangladesh." Environmental Managment 34 (2004): 487-98. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.
(10) Ericson, Jason P., Charles J. Vorosmarty, S. Lawerence Dingman, Larry G. Ward, and Michel Meybeck. "Effective Sea-level Rise and Deltas: Causes of Change and Human Dimension Implications." Global and Planetery Change 50.1-2 (2006): 63-82. Sciencedirect.com. Elsevier. Web. 5 Aug. 2016.
(11) German, Erik, and Solana Pine. "Dhaka, Bangladesh: Fastest Growing City in the World." CBS News. CBS, 19 Sept. 2010. Web. 7 Aug. 2016.
(12) "The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas (2016)." Union of Concerned Scientists. Union of Concerned Scientists, n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
(13) Commonwealth of Virginia Storm Surge Inundation Map. Digital image. Vaemergency.gov. Virginia Department of Emergency Managment, n.d. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.
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