Why shouldn't we frame climate change as a national security issue?
January 5, 2016 4:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing an article about climate change in relation to terrorism for my college newspaper and came across a Wired article which said: Then there’s the fact, says [Joshua] Busby, that framing climate change as a military issue could lead to military solutions, not environmental ones. (more from the article in the extended explanation section) So my question: what would be some effective ways to defend his argument? Can anyone cite instances in history that would support this? I can't seem find anyone else who shares his sentiment.

More from the article (titled "How Climate Change Became a National Security Problem)

Framing climate change as a national security threat has obvious advantages. Not only does it increase the sense of urgency, but it also creates a path for environmental solutions. The military, for instance, could play an important role in building advanced green technology, helping secure the country’s grid and giving the US a strategic advantage over other countries in the future. “Once we recognize it as an issue that affects all sectors of society including the security of our political institutions, governments, and communities, then we can tackle it in a much more holistic way,” says Femia.

But while the security implications of climate change are real, both Femia and Busby say it’s crucial not to raise too many alarms. Femia, for one, takes issue with Sanders’ assertion that climate change is the biggest national security risk today. “I think that framing is problematic. It doesn’t compete with other priorities, things like terrorism or the nuclear threat of Iran or North Korea,” he says. Ignoring that fact, Femia says, will only make it easier for candidates on the other side of the aisle to write off the issue entirely. “It’s going to be really important in the future to talk about climate change as not the biggest security issue, but an issue that will make security harder in the future,” he says.

Then there’s the fact, says Busby, that framing climate change as a military issue could lead to military solutions, not environmental ones. For instance, sea ice melting in the Arctic has paved the way for new drilling opportunities for countries like Russia. Of course, climate mitigation activists know that more drilling won’t fix the problem. But faced with the increased presence of countries like Russia in the region, President Obama recently called for new investment in Arctic icebreakers, which will help the US Coast Guard defend its oil interests in the region against other countries.

In other words, when you frame climate change as a security threat, the military will want to respond. And the way they will respond may have very little to do with stopping the spread of climate change. It will have to do with protecting military interests. “All that comes at a cost,” both environmental and monetary, Busby says.

Which is why, he says, politicians should think long and hard before recasting the issue of climate change completely. “People who are proponents of using the security framework to attract attention to this issue might not anticipate that when the military takes something seriously as a security threat, it has certain implications for the military,” Busby says. “It reinforces nationalistic responses to solving the problem, as opposed to collective efforts that might be mutually beneficial to the world.”
posted by defmute to Law & Government (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure there is the political will for this in the US, with high levels of climate change denial: if there is no perceived threat, than there's no need to respond. However, relatedly, the Navy now wishes to "reduce our reliance on foreign sources of fossil fuels through investments in renewable energy, including biofuel and other alternative sources (wind, solar, and geothermal)." This has involved projects like this.
posted by exogenous at 4:43 AM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I actually share the sentiment because I don't understand how environmental changes cause interstate war. All current explanations are 'just-so' stories and no theory has been developed. The obvious point is scarcity. But states don't fight over natural resources anymore since nearly all natural resources are traded on the global market. No one believes seriously in 'energy independence'--its a phrase you hear in debates because its a stupid concept for most countries (unless their energy is not traded on the global market, like Ukraine). For example, the US has never been concerned with expropriating or extracting Middle Eastern oil--its about ensuring that it flows.

Security is in some sense relative--the security dilemma famously predicts that one state's attempts to increase its security makes another state less secure. So how could a phenomenon that affects everyone make some states less secure? It seems like the argument against the argument you want to defend is actually very weak: no one has provided a theory as to exactly how the changes wrought by climate change will increase the risk of interstate war.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:50 AM on January 5, 2016

I think DoD's acknowledgement that climate change is real is from a logistics and operational concern, not a possible cause of war in itself. I know DoD is making a big push into solar and other alternative energy sources for military bases.

But states don't fight over natural resources anymore since nearly all natural resources are traded on the global market.

I think the one possible future exception to this is water.
posted by LoveHam at 4:58 AM on January 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Because that is some sort of blind nationalist weirdness. This shit is not a zero-sum game.

In the short term, yes, considering this a national security issue might mean you (whichever nation we're talking about) can use your military to secure your (and acquire others') resources. But (and this is AskMe, so let's just assume we're all talking about the USA) framing it as a 'national security problem' suggest the solution is the USA appropriating more resources, and denying them to more foreigners.

That's almost certainly not a good approach to a global challenge.

Also (again assuming we're talking about the USA) more incentive to waste more resources on a military machine that can destroy the world yet can't achieve its actual policy objectives is obviously a waste of resources.

But states don't fight over natural resources anymore since nearly all natural resources are traded on the global market.

You reckon?

posted by pompomtom at 5:11 AM on January 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

My view is that the left is losing the climate change debate because of an inability to convincingly articulate the relative costs and benefits of climate change and various proposals to curb it. In particular, overstating the expected impact of the problem is, in my view, a common error of the left and an impediment to more significant action on climate change. For example, describing climate change as the biggest national security threat we face is a characterization that could equally well apply to any of several phenomena one didn't like, such as excessive immigration, the deficit, drug use, or high taxes, all of which in their absolute worst form could destabilize the government.

Could one advocate for the military studying climate change even if he/she conceded that it need not be the military's top priority? Sure, though he/she would need to describe what it was about the military's skill set that made it particularly well-suited to studying climate change solutions. After all, each dollar going to the military is a dollar not going to universities or government agencies and private research firms with scientific expertise.
posted by deadweightloss at 5:52 AM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

As someone who used to help scientists prepare grant proposals, I can tell you that DoD is indeed VERY interested in climate change and in supporting the development of technologies to mitigate it.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:06 AM on January 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

Well sure, but who'ya gunna invade? California?

What I don't get is what happened to the ZPG folks, if we only had a billion people or so in the world it would ease many issues significantly. Now how to convince the hawks to provide birth control here and abroad, hey that opens up a candidate state for invasion: Vatican City.
posted by sammyo at 7:24 AM on January 5, 2016

When the military was desegregated, it was framed by many as a national security issue -- by cordoning off units and specialties, the U.S. was essentially decreasing the strength of the military. Ditto when women were integrated into the military and the end of DADT: "These are potential resources we're leaving out."
posted by Etrigan at 7:29 AM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

But states don't fight over natural resources anymore since nearly all natural resources are traded on the global market.

A very recent counterpoint.
posted by Karaage at 8:26 AM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

2 points: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was 25 years ago. The Arab Spring wasn't an interstate conflict.

The larger point is that if you want to argue against global warming as a security issue, its actually quite easy, since global warming's effect in the near-term is most likely to exarcerbate existing tensions. Which means that global warming can only contribute to and not cause interstate war. Which means that the military should not be focusing on the underlying root causes of things (like global warming or ideology or scarcity or whatever) but the proximate causes (like riots).

Global warming isn't a thing, its a global extra-systemic and gradual process that affects everything, which makes it very difficult to frame as a security issue, since security is very often concerned with proximate threats. This remains true even though many have done work that expands the definition of security to include myriad offenses.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:35 AM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you look at what the US DoD is saying about climate change (and about their Arctic strategy), I think you'll see more or less exactly what MisantropicPainforest says above. To wit: National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate from July 2015:
Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. Each GCC’s assessment of risk reflects how this range of factors will affect security in its Area of Responsibility (AOR). GCCs generally view climate change as a security risk because it impacts human security and, more indirectly, the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations. Communities and states that are already fragile and have limited resources are significantly more vulnerable to disruption and far less likely to respond effectively and be resilient to new challenges.

Case studies indicate that in addition to exacerbating existing risks from other factors (e.g., social, economic, and political fault lines), climate-induced stress can generate new vulnerabilities (e.g., water scarcity) and thus contribute to instability and conflict even in situations not previously considered at risk.
Jacqueline's comment above is quite correct - the DoD is very interested indeed.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:03 AM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think perhaps the framing is a bit confusing, because the point that Busby is making is that framing climate change as a national security issue may be a bad idea because it will lead to responses from the military that are military-focused rather than focused on mitigating climate change. Busby is not arguing against climate change as a national security issue (he takes that as a given); he is arguing against the tactical political framing of climate change as a national security issue because it will not result in climate mitigation.

In other words, if you want to tackle climate change, you need to tackle climate change head on, not frame it as a national security issue, because that means the solution will be a military response - and a military response is definitely not going to solve a global problem like climate change. See also the military response to 9/11, which has obviously done nothing to reduce Islamic fundamentalism around the world. You can't fight systemic global problems with the military, no matter how large and powerful.
posted by ssg at 9:25 AM on January 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you want to get the military involved in a nonmilitary way, the correct way to do that is to get it classified as a crisis/emergency/disaster of some sort. For example, when Katrina hit, the federal government declared it a disaster and sent in federal troops to provide various kinds of support.

As I understand it, declaring it "a national security issue" does, in fact, have military/war-like implications. We already have a mechanism in place for mobilizing troops internally in a nonmilitary manner. At one time, my ex was involved in that and, for example, he deployed to Southern California when wildfires were leading to mud slides.

If you want to argue that this a very serious situation and it merits mobilizing federal resources, like the military and Army Corps of Engineers, we already have a mechanism for that. The issue you will face is finding a means to argue that this long term trend fits criteria developed for acute crises.

If you want to try to argue that, I would start by looking up all the laws, definitions, policies, processes etc surrounding declaring a state of emergency and similar language.
posted by Michele in California at 10:53 AM on January 5, 2016

No one believes seriously in 'energy independence'--its a phrase you hear in debates because its a stupid concept for most countries

Tell that to Norway. Being the master of your own destiny come hell or high water is a stupid concept to nobody who thinks long-term. Energy independence isn't stupid because it has severe economic implications. Economic implications inevitably wind up being national security implications, at some point.

Another thing to keep in mind: quite apart from resources, climate change has huge implications for national security anyway. The US Navy already believes climate change is real, is inevitable, and they have good reasons to prepare for it: as sea levels are rising and sea ice levels are declining, this changes the available shipping routes and places you can send a surface fleet, which matters for both offense and defense. The US is a maritime nation. Yes, we have lots of landlocked territory, but our primary defense feature is friendly nations to the north and south and huge oceans that cannot be traversed without being seen. As of 2009, the reduction in sea ice made the Northwest Passage an actual thing. If the Navy is already planning for climate change and its consequences, climate change is already being considered a national security issue.

Which is why "It doesn’t compete with other priorities, things like terrorism or the nuclear threat of Iran or North Korea," is dead wrong. Neither of those have the ability to seriously threaten the US; the terrorists are frankly, quite stupid (you haven't heard of a successful biological attack yet or poisoning of our food supplies, have you?), and North Korea is a joke. They can really ruin South Korea's day, maybe even Japan's if they stick the landing with their iffy long-range missiles, but they can't harm the US. Similar with Iran. They're not a joke, but attacking US allies in the region is assured destruction for them, and they're not that stupid. Both of those countries can hurt US allies, but don't have the ability to do serious, long-term damage to the US beyond what US policy can do itself.

Getting back to the topic, climate change has the ability to damage US economic prospects and food supplies with the shift in temperature and precipitation patterns. That's the big one. Changes in the hydrology may be more dramatic and damaging over the short term than just the temperature shift, and that's pretty much already happening (though it's hard to know for sure without a lengthier data set).

Climate change isn't a military problem to solve, but the US military, and almost certainly other militaries, such as Russia's, consider it a problem they have to tangle with, and are already starting to do so. The reason not to call it a national security issue for the military to solve, is because this is a policy problem. A political problem. I wouldn't suggest that the military is the way to solve farming problems...
posted by Strudel at 11:25 AM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know it's a bit cliché but the line from Clausewitz about how "war is the continuation of politics by other means" still holds. Framing climate change as a security threat runs the risk of the public thinking it is something that can be managed through military power rather than political policy solutions. If the public is convinced that we can "win" at dealing with the consequences by hunkering down on whatever resources we think we need to survive and crushing anyone who challenges us instead of working to prevent/mitigate climate change in the first place that is where resources will be directed. It's a similar failure of logic to thinking a big enough wall can prevent illegal immigration.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:11 PM on January 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe I missed it, but I'm not seeing where anyone has answered OP's question.

Can you get in touch with Busby and ask him yourself?
posted by Baeria at 12:44 PM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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