Climate change and the military in China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States

By Michael Brzoska | April 12, 2012

The perspective of national security actors on climate change is important, if for no other reason than one simple reality: Militaries are important political actors in most countries, and their views can influence the overall course a government takes. But there are other reasons. Armed forces use sizeable amounts of natural and financial resources, making them important factors in national energy balances and effective competitors for government spending on climate change. Also, climate change will alter the strategic and operational environments for militaries, providing them with new options and challenges. Finally, there is a danger that climate change could be “militarized” by defense officials who favor the use of force to deal with mass migration and other destabilizing responses to environmental disasters, even when better alternatives are available.

National security actors all over the world (although certainly not in all countries) see climate change as a future threat or threat multiplier that puts additional demand on military capabilities and capacities. What this demand might be and where it will play out, however, is seen quite differently in the countries that acknowledge a national security dimension to the problem. This variation may not be so surprising; knowledge about the climate change consequences that have potential relevance for armed forces — consequences relating, for instance, to armed conflict or humanitarian disasters — is actually quite limited.

The United States overview. The US military and much of the country’s broader national security community have debated the seriousness of the threat posed by global climate change since the 1990s. The first official mention of climate change as a security threat occurred in the 1997 National Security Strategy: “Environmental threats such as climate change, ozone depletion, and the transnational movement of dangerous chemicals directly threaten the health of US citizens.” Among the document’s long list of actions aimed at preventing climate change, however, none relates to the US military. The major defense planning document implementing the military aspects of national security planning, the Quadrennial Defense Review of 1997, is likewise silent on the issue.

Because the George W. Bush administration questioned the anthropogenic causation of climate change, it was dropped from the list of security threats in official documents on national security, including the Quadrennial Defense Reviews of 2001 and 2006. Instead, the administration listed it as one of the challenges to be overcome to “ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade” in National Security Strategy documents.

The Bush policy did not go unchallenged at the Pentagon. In their 2003 study, “An abrupt climate change scenario and its implications for United States national security,” Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network, painted a number of depressing scenarios of turmoil and war resulting from the consequences of climate change. As a contract job, the study had no insider status. Because it had been commissioned by the Pentagon Office of Net Assessment, directed by the legendary futurist Andrew Marshall, however, the report was assured major attention both in the military and by the general public.

Globally, the militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom have been the most involved, in both debate and action, on climate change. Russia and China are the largest military powers after the United States, so the perception of the issue in these two countries is of particular concern for future international security. To thoroughly understand the current and future state of climate change affairs in the militaries in these four countries, four core issues can be compared: reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by armed forces; dangers that climate change poses to military installations, primarily through raised sea levels; potential conflict in the Arctic; and military operations in crisis situations, including wars and disaster relief.

It is difficult to analyze the perspective of militaries, defense ministries, and other national security actors since bureaucratic organizations generally do not provide, in publicly available documents, the true thinking inside the organizations. The available information does make one thing very clear, however: The eventual effects of climate on the many policy areas that affect the national security of these four major nations are not yet clear, and the appropriate responses are therefore uncertain. National security actors are, indeed, seeing increased roles for the military — in domestic disaster relief in all four countries, in missions in crisis situations in the case of the United States and the United Kingdom, and in the Arctic for the US and the Russian military. But as of now, available documents do not show national security organizations expressing much urgency or taking many aggressive stands on climate change — in part, no doubt, due to the paucity of information about the connection between a changing climate and the security of nations. Researchers are sometimes teased for ending long research papers with calls for more research. In this case, it is obvious at the start that further study is vital if the national security threats that might flow from climate change are to be properly identified, analyzed, addressed, and, one can hope, minimized.

The full contents of this article are available in the January/February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and can be found here.

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