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Threats of Climate Change

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:23 PM GMT on August 02, 2009

National Security

Back in April I did a series of blogs about what would be the major motivators for the development of climate change policy in the United States. (link to the last in that series) I mentioned an informal poll that I take in my class, where I pose that question early on and then later in the course. Late in the course the answer evolves towards issues such as national security, especially as related to international instability.

This past week I attended The Forum on Earth Observations III . The conference was sponsored by the The Alliance for Earth Observations. It was an interesting day, and there are several pieces of information that I, ultimately, plan to report. I want to start, however, with the talk by Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, USN (Ret.). He was discussing a report that was published in 2007 entitled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. Though this report received some attention in 2007, it is well worth revisiting the report and its conclusions, especially, as we are now moving towards the development of federal and new international climate change policy.

The lead finding in this report is that “Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security.” In the talk Admiral Gunn placed this threat as comparable to that associated with terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The report goes on to discuss how climate change is an amplifier to many existing threats, the relationship to energy security, and how the stable regions of the world are susceptible to problems in the less stable regions of the world.

In the body of the report what I find most new to me is the discussion of the relationship of terrorism and political instability to the environment, and the amplification to this tension that will be caused by climate change. Admiral Gunn discussed the relation of terrorism and desertification, and the prediction of more deserts in the future increasing the types of environments, which in combination with high population and unstable government, breed terrorism. Similarly, the disruption of agriculture in low lying areas, which are impacted by sea level rise, will increase the fragility of already fragile countries. The intersection of environmental conditions with climate change and geopolitical situations – like climate change it is difficult to predict the details, but it is possible with some confidence to assess the risk and potential situations that might arise.

One of the strongest statements I found in the report was about uncertainty. “As military leaders we know that we cannot wait for certainty. Failing to act because a warning isn’t precise enough is unacceptable.” Within the report General Gordon R. Sullivan states, “We never have 100 percent certainty. We never have it. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, then something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

The perspectives brought by these accomplished military leaders are, at times, sobering. There is a clear call by these leaders for strategies for preparation and adaptation, and for helping to build adaptive capacity of countries to help stabilize governments.

In a follow on report that same committee starts to look internally to the military, and more generally for the need for the U.S. to develop a strategy for energy security. That report Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security can be found here.


Alliance for Earth Observations brochure on Earth Observations

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.