Mixing climate change with the war on terror

By Lyle Hopkins | August 26, 2008

Climate change and the war on terror mix like oil and water. Our understanding of climate change and its implications is built on hard science, which continues to grow in volume and refinement. It’s a singular challenge on an order of magnitude that we’ve never encountered and solving it requires an unprecedented level of involvement and cooperation from all nations and people.

Conversely, the United States has pursued the war on terror nearly unilaterally, spawning blights such as a blurring of the distinction between interrogation and torture, a system of international gulags, huge losses of life among foreign civilian populations and U.S. troops, massive drains on our resources, and a growing population of refugees and have-nots that’s making terrorist recruitment easier.

Therefore, although there are certain connections between environmental degradation and the causes of violence and extremism (the scarcity of arable land in Sudan is a frequent example), we must resist conflating the issues by militarizing our response to climate change.

Yet, there’s a real danger that terrorism and climate change will become inextricably linked in the minds of the foreign policy community and public, as certain policy analysts at influential think tanks are contributing to the emergence of a dangerous narrative that seeks to use climate change-induced regional instability as an excuse to continue the war on terror. For example, “The Age of Consequences,” a document by the recently established think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) that is supposedly devoted to the impacts of climate change, references terror, terrorist, or terrorism at least 37 times. As for who will be conducting these terrorist attacks, Islam is mentioned at least 11 times, 8 of which are references to Islamic terrorists or Islamic extremism; the remaining 3 all describe Islamic populations as sources of friction within countries or with the West. (Interestingly, there’s no mention of any potential exacerbation among non-Islamic extremists such as Timothy McVeigh, Eric Robert Rudolph, or members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.)

An excerpt from the CNAS report makes a direct link between terrorism and climate change and calls for solutions to address both simultaneously: “While we continue our debates and disagreements, wouldn’t it be wise to take steps–particularly when many of them are financially attractive–that reduce both the risk of mass terrorism and the chance of catastrophic climate change?” The quote is part of a longer section devoted to calling upon environmentalists and hawks to come together and embrace both issues at once. It weaves the war on terror with environmental thinking and provides insight into what its authors (Aspen Strategy Group Director Kurt Campbell, Center for American Progress CEO John Podesta, and former CIA director James Woolsey among them) think about how we should react to global challenges.

In fact, several recent landmark studies have explored the broad societal and national security implications of climate change, starting with the 2003 Global Business Network report “Abrupt Climate Change.” The 2006 report from Sir Nicholas Stern on the economic costs of climate change, the 2007 Center for Naval Analysis report on climate change and national security, and this year’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) report on its climate change and national security conference have all created a foundation for discussing the issue in an economic and national security context.

These reports have pushed the discussion about climate change into defense and intelligence circles and have done so in a largely responsible manner. For instance, the Center for Naval Analysis report also addresses extremism without characterizing Muslims as the sole sponsors of terrorism. But there is worrisome evidence of wrongheaded thinking in some of the reports. Several of the SSI report contributors, most notably professor of political-military strategy Kent Butts, still view the military as a positive tool for settling instability and fighting extremism. But if our solution for future climate problems is primarily met by military intervention, how will it differ from our current foreign policy strategies?

In another example of static thinking about the U.S. military’s role in global security, CNAS Advisory Board Member Jim Thomas writes in the CNAS publication “Sustainable Security,” “At times, the United States may have to use its military to prevent wars and advance its interests, not simply to ‘fight and win wars’ when they occur. Accordingly, the application of the military should in some cases be not of last resort, but should sometimes occur at an early date when it is still possible to prevent security problems from metastasizing and affecting the broader international security system, and U.S. interests more directly.” He continues: “Such a preventive approach would represent a departure from the so-called Weinberger doctrine on the use of the military–as a last resort and only when vital interests are threatened–and a reorientation toward earlier involvement in problem areas by working with and through others to address security challenges so that large-scale intervention by the United States is less likely at a later time.”

I can think of no clearer example of the velvet glove being placed over the iron fist in an attempt to continue failed policy approaches. Compare Thomas’s view with Vice President Dick Cheney’s so-called “One Percent Doctrine,” as captured by Ron Suskind: “If there’s a 1-percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis. . . . It’s about our response.” If anything, Thomas’s articulation is worse, as it’s not tied to nuclear weapons, but rather, the ever-malleable “security problems.” The hairsbreadth difference is Thomas’s view of the utility of “working with and through others”–often a counterproductive strategy given our experiences with the mujahideen in the 1980s and Iran in the 1970s.

Ironically, as John Wihbey, a producer of the NPR program On Point, observed in the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, the Pentagon’s long history of studying long-term, low-probability events such as weapons proliferation “may make intelligence groups well-suited to grappling with slippery projections–such as precisely how and when climate change will affect particular regions.” In Iraq, acting on a 1-percent probability of weapons proliferation has made the United States a near-global pariah; will the world view future U.S. military action under the guise of responding to inexact climate change predictions as anything other than continued belligerent interventionism?

Where then does Defense stand on its role in mitigating climate change? Buffeted by skyrocketing energy costs, lowered recruitment standards, and rising suicide rates, Defense officials have cooled on the idea of interventionist foreign policy. Predicted consequences of climate change, even under the best-case scenarios, include destabilization of countries already at the brink of failed-state status and an increase in refugee populations and weather disasters. Thus, not surprisingly, senior career officers are pushing back, calling for the reduced use of military operations and a move toward diplomacy and other social, cultural, and religious factors as a way to influence other countries. The Center for Naval Analysis report, which 11 retired three- and four-star generals from all the combat service branches endorsed, called explicitly for the use of soft power in response to climate threats.

Still, Defense is massive in scale, with competing service branches, massive acquisition budgets, and entrenched ideologues that make for an environment rife with internal factionalism. The civilian defense industry and the relatively small but influential military acquisition community that monitors and manages government contracts poses another challenge. Ever since the Gulf War, the acquisition community has looked at wars as a blessing because they speed up the approval and fielding process for new weapon systems. A seismic lurch occurred in mid-2003 when the acquisition community as a whole attempted to capitalize on the massive amount of money being thrown at terrorism by tying nearly any program into fighting terror and its associated threats. Some of the programs may have saved lives. But many were designed only to claim a piece of the pie, regardless of whether operational military units needed or wanted them. The threats posed by climate change provide the perfect opportunity for the military-industrial complex to justify current and future development.

To keep this from happening, think tanks should harness the power of retired and active intelligence professionals to provide open-source research countering the preposterous war on terror formulations of the last five years. After all, Wihbey is right–and the relative comfort intelligence professionals have with working from dynamic and inexact predictions could be an asset. The mass exodus of career intelligence professionals who left government during the Bush administration could provide a rich pool of analysts to analyze climate change without political blinders. Better yet, we must collectively agree not to consider military action when it involves security issues that are rooted in environmental degradation. The issues of climate change and violent extremism must be delinked in the minds of policy makers and the public.

For its part, Defense should concentrate on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and move toward renewable energy as a primary source of installation power–a direction it’s already moving in. The 2005 Energy Policy Act mandated that 3 percent of Defense’s energy come from renewable sources by 2009 and 7.5 percent by 2013. The air force and army have already exceeded their 2013 mandate by reaching 11 percent and 7.8 percent respectively prior to 2008. This goal will encourage the acquisition community and defense industry to put their efforts toward developing renewable and carbon-light energy systems.

An institution as massive as the Defense Department must be included in formulating solutions to climate change, but they can do so either by weapon design and preemptive invasions or by encouraging renewable industry growth, reducing their carbon footprint, and lowering global demand for oil by reducing their own fuel usage. The next four years will likely prove to be the crossroads for how we act and react to climate change and security issues. We have a choice between continuing the failed policies of the last five years or crafting foreign policies built on realism and diplomacy. The decision is easy.

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