National security and the nexus of climate, conflict and migration

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Does climate change pose a national security threat? That is the question to be addressed by a proposed Presidential Committee on Climate Security, according to a report by The Washington Post

The proposal to establish the committee follows several high-profile reports indicating that climate change does indeed threaten our security. Remember the Fourth National Climate Assessment report released in late November that warned of dire outcomes for the U.S., including a loss of up to 10 percent of GDP by 2100 — more than double the losses of the Great Recession? A mid-January Defense Department report identified climate change as both a national security issue and threat to U.S. military installations in many parts of the world. 

{mosads}The Worldwide Threat Assessment submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee in late January by Daniel Coats, the director of National Intelligence, stated that “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”  And a January report from the Government Accountability Office detailed case studies of climate impacts on human mobility, global migration, and security.  Notably, these reports were issued by relatively conservative or independent authors and agencies that are far removed from the deep-state narrative often suggested by climate deniers. 

Although the idea of a federal advisory committee on climate security might seem like a positive move on face value, the motivation is questionable. For starters, the committee will be spear-headed by climate skeptic William Happer, an advisor to the National Security Council; Happer has previously extolled the benefits of increased CO2 and warming for mankind

Moreover, the National Security Council’s own white paper states that “scientific and national security judgments have not undergone a rigorous independent and adversarial scientific peer review to examine the certainties and uncertainties of climate science, as well as implications for national security.” Most Americans will recognize this statement as false, given the well-established, extensive, and rigorous peer review process underlying climate science. But fewer people are as familiar with the evidence linking climate change to national security.

Climate change is widely viewed as a “threat multiplier” that operates along different pathways to compromise national security. One pathway is by reducing the availability or access to critical resources, such as water, food and productive land, which can provoke or exacerbate social unrest, conflict and displacement or forced migration. Another pathway flows from the pressure that migrants might place on resources, services, and the economy of receiving geographies, which also can act to undermine security.  

The Syrian conflict provides a useful case study. Widespread crop failure and reduced groundwater supplies followed the most severe drought on record, a three-year drought attributed to human-caused climate change.  Climate-induced environmental stressors prompted a mass migration of rural farming families to Syrian cities, where soaring urban populations strained economic resources, social services, and infrastructure to the point of inciting conflict and violence. The internal conflict, coupled with limited resources, resulted in the forced migration of millions of people and, subsequently, triggered fear, blame, social unrest and political discord in many receiving countries.   

Such feedbacks are not unique to Syria, and scientists have detected similar patterns globally. For instance, a meta-analysis of 60 studies found that likelihood of conflict since the 1950s increases with departures from normal precipitation and temperature patterns, and the frequency of violence among groups rises by 14 percent with each one-standard deviation.  

{mossecondads}Another study reported that when temperatures in 103 countries shifted outside of ranges that best supported agriculture, asylum applications increased in the European Union from 2000-2014.   A recent study of asylum seekers across 157 countries from 2006 to 2015 showed that as climate change increased the intensity and extent of drought, the probability of armed conflict and subsequent outmigration of refugees rose as well. Thus, compelling empirical evidence supports the existence of strong connections across multiple spatial and temporal scales. 

With President Trump’s strong emphasis on security — especially as related to immigration — one might expect greater attention to be paid to the positive feedbacks among climate change, conflict and migration. The connections were already obvious to both Obama and Bush administrations, and that recognition led to climate change being explicitly identified as a national security issue.  Yet, despite having more evidence of the climate-conflict-migration nexus than ever, we only seem to ask the question, once again, rather than actually tackle the issue.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions. 

Tags Amanda Rodewald Climate change Donald Trump National security
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