Copyrighted material


by Jim Lobe

Military Panel: Climate Change Threatens U.S. National Security

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- While the United States is relatively well placed to cope with the likely consequences of global warming over the next 20 years, many developing countries, especially in Africa, South, Central and East Asia, and Central America, could suffer serious problems, particularly related to water scarcity and migration, according to testimony here June 25 by a top U.S. intelligence officer.

Those problems could "seriously affect U.S. national security interests" in a variety of ways, Thomas Fingar, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), told two Congressional committees in what was billed as the key findings of a still-classified new intelligence analysis of the security impacts of climate change.

"We assess that climate change alone is unlikely to trigger state failure in any state out to 2030, but the impacts will worsen existing problems, such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak institutions," he told the lawmakers.

"Climate change could threaten domestic stability in some states, potentially contribution to intra- or, less likely, interstate conflict, particularly over access to increasingly scarce water resources," he said. "We judge that economic migrants will perceive additional reasons to migrate because of harsh climates, both within nations and from disadvantaged to richer countries."

Fingar's testimony and the intelligence community's latest analysis, entitled "The National Security Implications of Global Climate Change Through 2030," come amid growing concern both in public and in Congress about the consequences of climate change and the failure of the outgoing Bush administration to address it in any serious way over the past seven-and-a-half years.

Indeed, both presumptive major party candidates, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, have assailed Bush's passivity and, at various times, co-sponsored legislation that would require mandatory caps and eventual reductions on U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Obama has favoured stronger action than his Republican rival. Neither candidate, however, has made the implications of warming for U.S. national security a central part of his policy proposals.

At the same time, however, various activist groups and think tanks have tried to highlight the issue. Last fall, for example, two mainstream think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), released a 119-page study, entitled "The Age of Consequences," on the subject. It predicted that rising temperatures and sea levels caused by climate change are likely to set off mass migrations involving "perhaps billions of people" over the next century if some of the more severe predictions by scientists about changes in Earth's climate were to materialize.

"Global warming has the potential to destabilize the world," CNAS president Kurt Campbell, who analysts here believe could get a top position in an Obama administration, said at the time. "In my view, this will quickly become the defining issue of our age."

While the intelligence community's conclusions are not quite so sweeping or explicit, perhaps in part due to the fact that its projections don't go beyond 2030, Fingar noted that climate change will carry with it "significant geopolitical consequences," such as "domestic stability in a number of key states, the opening of new sea lanes and access to raw materials, and the global economy more broadly."

His testimony's conclusions about warming's impact through 2030 rest largely on the moderate projections released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as recent work by U.S. government agencies that work in the same area.

The IPCC studies, which represented the consensus judgment of thousands of scientists around the world, estimated that the average global temperature will most likely increase approximately one-half degree C over the next two decades and that sea level will rise no more than 75 mms. These changes will be accompanied by variations in weather patterns, including the frequency and intensity of storms and rainfall in various parts of the world.

As for the U.S. homeland itself, agricultural productivity may actually increase, according to the Fingar's testimony. He cautioned, however, that such gains could well be offset by the necessity of repairing and replacing key infrastructure, particularly in coastal areas and in the permafrost regions of oil-rich Alaska, by increased demand for energy resources, and by growing immigration pressures from resource-scarce regions of the world.

Outside the U.S., Africa will be "the most vulnerable region to climate change because of multiple environmental, economic, political, and social stresses" that are already in evidence. Changes in rainfall patterns there could result in as much as a 50-percent decline in some crops as early as 2020, and agricultural losses could be particularly severe in the Sahel, West Africa, and southern Africa, according to Fingar. The region is also likely to be more susceptible to the spread of diseases.

"Without food aid, the region will likely face higher levels of instability -- particularly violent ethnic clashes over land ownership," he said.

South, Southeast, and East Asia may also face reduced agricultural productivity by as much as 10 percent in some crops as a result of increased risk of floods and droughts. As many as 50 million more people in the region could suffer hunger by 2020 and as many as 1.2 billion people could experience water shortages later in the decade.

"Europe will likely become hotter" and experience more frequent and severe heat waves with greater annual precipitation in the north and declining rainfall in the eastern Mediterranean. Latin America and the Caribbean are likely to suffer more frequent extreme weather events and flooding which could "motivate many (people) to move sooner rather than later."

"Almost one-fourth of the countries with the greatest percentage of population in low-elevation coastal zones are in the Caribbean, so assisting these populations will be an imminent task" for the U.S., he noted.

Indeed, "(A)s climate changes spur more humanitarian emergencies, the international community's capacity to respond will be increasingly strained," Fingar said. "The demands of these potential humanitarian responses may significantly tax U.S. military transportation and support force structures, resulting in a strained readiness posture and decreased depth for combat operations."

Meanwhile, global warming's intensifying impacts on the planet will likely climb higher on the international agenda, and, as they do, warned Finger, "the U.S.'s leadership overall in the global arena will be judged by the extent to which it is perceived as forging a viable and effective global consensus for tackling climate change."

Finger stressed that the intelligence community hoped to follow up with a number of other studies regarding specific states and regions; the potential national security impacts of various remediation strategies, such as increased reliance on alternative fuel sources; and how the "geo-politics of climate change" may affect great-power relations.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   July 2, 2008   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.