Thwaites Glacier. Image credit: NASA
By Natalie Wu
With the conclusion of the Iraq War and the winding down of the War in Afghanistan, there has been a new consensus in Washington D.C. that “great power competition” is replacing terrorism as the primary threat to U.S. national security. This viewpoint is most clearly articulated in the National Defense Strategy (NDS), updated in 2018 for the first time after a decade, which calls for restoring America’s competitive edge by blocking global rivals, namely China and Russia, from throwing the current international order out of balance. However, the current administration misses a far greater threat, one that cannot be defeated as easily with airstrikes and artillery, one that has been growing nearly unimpeded for centuries.
Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report with a serious message: in order to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius, unprecedented transformation in our global energy, agriculture, and industrial systems must be made within the next 10 to 20 years. Despite the dire situation, in 2018 carbon emissions in the U.S. shot up for the first time in three years. Given that global warming is occurring at a faster pace than scientists previously thought, it is worth examining some of the ways in which it poses a security threat for the U.S. Global warming will undermine vital American interests by causing sea level rise, intensifying hurricanes, and exacerbating resource competition.
Sudden weather events and sea level rise, which at worst case scenario is predicted to be 6.5m by 2100, will hamper the performance and necessitate the relocation of naval and Air Force bases. Climate change is shifting weather patterns to the extreme, causing sudden storm surges to increase in frequency and intensity in some areas. This development impairs the abilities of bases to perform basic functions across the globe. In Southern California, a severe flash flood in August 2013 caused Fort Irwin $64 million in damages. In Alaska, thawing permafrost and coastal erosion from stronger storms and higher tides endanger Air Force’s early-warning radar installations, which keep an eye on potential missiles from across the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the globe, the U.S. naval base on Diego Garcia, a small coral atoll near the Maldives, will sink from rising sea levels. In recent years, the base has gateway for sending supplies to forces in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Southern Europe.
This anecdotal evidence is backed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, who warn that a three-foot increase in sea levels could jeopardize the use of 128 U.S. military bases. Upgrading these facilities to adapt to climate change or building new ones will be expensive, and the funds to do so will be diverted from other programs.
However, the impacts of sea level rise aren’t restricted to military bases, for coastal cities will also be damaged in numerous ways. Portions of the East Coast are sinking due to geological forces, and combined with rising sea level means more frequent, more severe flooding to the region. Systems that support the most densely populated region of the U.S., such as power generation facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and public transportation, will be compromised. Down south, Miami braces for these same impacts and additionally the possibility for drinking water contamination. More frequent flooding increases the risk of toxins from nearby Superfund sites to leach into the Biscayne Aquifer, the main source of freshwater for Miami-Dade’s 2.75 million residents. In the long run, sea level rise will drown one-quarter of Miami and flood $200 billion worth of real estate along with it.
Global warming is also increasing surface ocean temperatures, providing more energy for more intense hurricanes. Americans are all too familiar with the destruction wreaked by these tropical storms, which dominate the news cycle in late summer of each year. In 2005, Americans watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina flooded the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and ravaged the port city. In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, resulting in the deaths of 2,975 people (nearly the same as 9/11) and leaving the inhabitants without electricity for 11 months. In 2018, Hurricane Michael became the fourth strongest hurricane to hit the continental U.S., destroying much of the Florida panhandle. These hurricanes carry heavy financial costs, in addition to the human ones. Hurricane Katrina costed $108 billion, Harvey $125 billion, and Maria $139 billion. As severe hurricanes become the norm, so will the damages.
It’s clear from the above reasons that adapting to the realities of climate change will be expensive. Infrastructure will need to be upgraded to face more severe flooding and storms. Tens of thousands of people may need to be relocated from densely populated areas that are subject to the worst effects. All these effects mentioned above and more will impose significant costs on the U.S. economy. In fact, the National Climate Assessment estimates that the costs of climate change will shrink the U.S. economy by 10% by 2100 (roughly twice the effect of the Great Recession). All this will occur while the national debt climbs and deficit spending surges, begging the question of where the money to adapt will come from.
Lastly, climate change will indirectly contribute to insecurity around the world. One link seldom drawn is between climate change and violent conflict. In its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon noted that climate change will increase resource competition. By pushing weather towards the extremes, “[c]limate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in the price of food.” In this sense, climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” because it compounds “stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
Indeed, anecdotal evidence of the Pentagon’s claims can be found across the world. One of the few discussed factors that led to the 2011 Syrian uprising was a drought, worsened by climate change. When combined with the Assad regime’s poor agricultural and water-use policies, it led to agricultural failure and the displacement of 1.5 million Syrians internally. Although it was not a direct catalyst for the bloody civil war, it certainly created further instability within the country and compounded other issues with the Assad regime. In South Asia, the cloud of nuclear war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir always looms. In recent years, a new point of conflict has arisen: control over the Indus River and its tributaries. The rivers are fed by the Himalayan glaciers, which are projected to melt under global warming, and they are crucial to feeding both countries’ growing populations and their industrial/agricultural activities. India’s construction of dams in Kashmir has drawn the ire of Pakistan’s government, nationalist and militant organizations, and right-wing media, which view the activity as a national security threat. Terrorists groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have threatened to blow up the dams should they impede water flow to Pakistan. A 2011 editorial in an urdu-language Pakistani newspaper, Nawa-i-Waqt, declared that “Pakistan should convey to India that a war is possible on the issue of water and this time war will be a nuclear one.”
Given this reality, it is clear that climate skepticism/denial, which has become the norm for the Republican Party in recent years, is dangerous for the sake of the planet and humanity. What is also dangerous is the National Defense Strategy which emphasizes “great power competition.” In order to combat climate change, we need great power cooperation. This necessitates working with rivals such as Russia and China, the latter which is now the world’s top carbon emitter. While we may have a host of conflicts and disagreements, they are not mutually exclusive with joint climate action. Historically, we have worked with “enemies” for betterment of planet. In the late 20th century, the Soviet Union and U.S. signed a series of arms control agreements that dramatically lowered the chances of nuclear war, thus making the planet safer for all. Going forward, we stand to learn from the example set by Cold War leaders such as Nixon and Brezhnev, for the very nature of global warming necessitates unprecedented amounts of international cooperation.
Climate change is a global problem, so it can only be tackled if all countries act in unison. In fact, this is an area that China appears poised to lead. In 2017, China announced an ambitious plan to invest $360 billion in renewable energy and scrap plans to construct 85 coal-fired plants. Although there remain challenges to China’s energy initiatives, such as its cap-and-trade program, which some believe is rather limited in scope, President Xi has clearly demonstrated interest in making China a world leader on climate action. In contrast, the Trump administration has slashed the Environmental Protection Agency budget, placed climate deniers as its head, and has prioritized saving the dying coal industry. On the climate front, the U.S. could stand to learn from China and hopefully find a mutually beneficial arrangement to help each other cut one’s carbon emissions.
It would be irresponsible to omit developing countries from the discussion of climate security since they will inevitably bear the brunt of the costs while contributing little to the problem (save China and India). However, there is a potential opportunity for the U.S. to better its relations with said countries via assistance with climate adaptation, likely in the form of foreign aid. Aid to climate vulnerable countries can serve as a confidence building measure (CBM). Through this CBM, it is possible to coax the Global South into cooperating on other issues that the U.S. prioritizes, such as travel and migration.
It’s clear that if climate change takes priority in the National Defense Strategy for the next administration, it will be necessary to divert an enormous amount of funds to adapt and mitigate. This will be no easy task as carbon is the currency of our current energy and economic system. Perhaps the Green New Deal hailed by the progressive flank of the Democratic Party will begin the much-needed transition. Whatever legislation the currently vague Green New Deal will entail, it is clear that this enormous project will require enormous funds. Hiking taxes on the ultra-rich alone, as has been proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), will certainly not be enough to cover the costs amongst other government expenditures. In addition to making the rich pay their fair share, reallocation of government spending would be advisable. Namely, cut unnecessary military spending, which in the fiscal year 2019 is projected to be over $688 billion. While allocating military funds would only help cover a portion of the costs, it would certainly send a message to the international community about American leadership. Instead of fighting more wars abroad, America is fighting a threat to us all.
Natalie Wu is a junior at Johns Hopkins University double majoring in Environmental Science and International Studies.