Dealing with extremes

Slipping by unnoticed amidst the litany of climategates, at least for many climate change-watchers, was the publication at the beginning of last week of the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which as the name suggests, is a review of DoD priorities and its strategies for dealing with the threats and challenges to US national security. Its consideration of the implications of climate change was done at the behest of instructions in 2008 from the US Senate (Hilary Clinton and John Warner), but how ‘national security professionals’ treat climate impacts is worth thinking about for a moment. (On the process of how climate change was overlaid onto the QDR process, see a short briefing by US thinktank the Centre for A New American Security)

A good deal of the discussion focuses on the link between energy security and climate change, and assuring secure supplies for thirsty planes, ships and trucks. Energy efficiency reduces the risks to combat missions (i.e. needing to protect fuel convoys from attacks as they travel across Afghanistan), and is a reminder that the ‘true cost’ of fuel is much higher than it appears on paper (just like the true cost of many of our other economic activities). The introduction of the “burdened cost of fuel” measure highlights the extra cost of transporting and protecting fuel supplies that far surpass the gallon price of the fuel itself. The mention of a  ‘green’ carrier strike group by 2016, powered on nuclear and biofuels, is one of the more eye-catching items part of a number of points on efficiency measures and energy innovation for and by the military.

So recognizing the consequences for energy supply from climate change are a win-win, helping to reduce energy demand while enhancing military missions. But what I find more interesting is its discussion of the threats and challenges from climate impacts to the ‘why’ of missions, not just the ‘how’:

Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have
significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental
degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to
food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass
migration.

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or
conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In
addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil
authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and
overseas.

The ‘could’ in that first sentence is an important one in pointing to the difficulties that still remain in making projections of precise climate impacts in the future, not least in having to bear in mind other factors that can improve or worsen the situation. But any uncertainty here is treated as a reason to act and plan for future scenarios of varying consequences, not as reasons for inaction. The interesting thing about security planning is the importance of high-impact but low-probability events – like a nuclear launch by North Korea, like Soviet tanks rolling across Europe, and now – like climatic tipping points (i.e. West Antarctic ice sheet) that take us into the realm of truly catastrophic climate change.

The QDR, and the Annual Threat Assessment from the US National Intelligence Director (also published last week) , which discusses the regional impacts of climate change (p.39), spend more time discussing shorter term impacts and how these are interwoven with other political dynamics. Climate change isn’t ‘monocausal’ in the sense that temperature rises will lead to state breakdowns; its impacts are mediated through other issues which clouds the importance of climate change. It will make some of today’s problems more frequent and severe, putting fresh demands on the conduct of international politics. But it is the spectre of tipping points that sharpens the mind and becomes a strategic concern for national security. So we have to plan for the worst, and for unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it – because if we don’t, and they do materialize, then we’ll be in deep trouble. How much risk are we willing to bear?

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