Climate Change – Send in the Marines?

author Steve Cheney

author Andrew Holland

Stephen Cheney and Andrew Holland

In November, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the final, synthesis report of their fifth assessment report on the science of climate change. As you wade through the science and statistics, it becomes clear that the report gives a dire warning of “severe, widespread and irreversible” effects from climate change. As this was just another in a litany of scientific warnings, it had no effect on the midterm elections, and little effect on leaders around the world.

The report makes clear that the world is on track, under a “business as usual” track, of global warming of at least 4 degrees Celsius, and perhaps up to 6 degrees or more by the end of this century. It made clear, that even with rapid, concerted action by governments around the world to reduce emissions, the limit of 2 degrees of warming – deemed “safe” by governments in international treaties – is drifting out of reach.

It is the implication that the effects of climate change will have on the water, food, and energy systems that humans need to survive that could create societal instability.

At first glance, a rise of two degrees Celsius in average temperature does not appear to be intrinsically harmful. That is the difference between the average temperature of New York and of Boston. A four degree Celsius rise – which some have determined to be impossible to simply adapt to – is still only the difference between Boston and Washington’s average annual temperature. Even a six degree Celsius rise – widely seen as a harbinger of global disaster – is still only the difference between Boston and Atlanta.

It is not clear that the climate of Georgia is any more dangerous than the climate of Massachusetts – so one could ask why the U.S. Department of Defense and militaries around the world care about climate change? When we talk about the national security challenges of climate change, we are not simply talking about temperature rises.

In today’s world, problems like economic growth, disease, hunger, and fresh water availability are a greater challenge to human security than simply a rise in temperature of 2 or 4 degrees in average temperature. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and resource wars would seem to pose a greater threat to global security than just a difference of even 6 degrees in average temperature.

Climate change presents security threats, not because a rise of in temperatures will be intrinsically harmful, but because of how it will affect things like extreme weather, agricultural production, and sea levels. In turn, how those effects of climate change will interact with where people live and already existing unstable situations.

It is the implication that the effects of climate change will have on the water, food, and energy systems that humans need to survive that could create societal instability. This then relates to how that instability will impact conflicts. We can never say that any war was caused by climate change because of the long chain of causes that lead to war, but we can say that climate change has multiplied the existing threats. It is impossible to separate climate change from the other problems. It is “the impacts of the impacts of climate change” that pose security threats.

The Department of Defense has called climate change a threat multiplier and the National Intelligence Community has called it an accelerant of instability. That means that the effects of climate change will have an impact on all of the other threats that we face in the 21st century. A warming of only 2 degrees Celsius will have a significant impact on water, food, and energy security. It will change disease vectors. It will drive migration. These changes, in turn, will influence state stability and harm global security.

If we do not effectively address climate change, then it is clear that we will not be able to address the other challenges of the 21st century.”

A few examples could serve to show how the effects of climate change will harm regional security in areas around the world.

Sea level rise is a problem on coasts around the world, but there are some areas where people and food production are concentrated in low-lying river deltas that are particularly vulnerable. In the Mekong River in Southern Vietnam, salt water inundation and rising water levels could displace millions and destroy the local rice crops. Millions in Egypt’s Nile Delta region will lose their homes - and wheat crops - to rising sea levels. Even the major cities in China on the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas, like Shanghai and Guangzhou, are in danger because rising seas will make them more vulnerable to extreme coastal storms. This will multiply risks across Asian and Middle Eastern societies as people become homeless and migrate, and regional agricultural production collapses.

The effects of climate change on extreme weather systems are complicated and the science is still uncertain, but more warming could increase both the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Last year, Super-Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines with maximum sustained winds estimated at 195 mph – the highest in recorded history anywhere in the world. Bryan Norcross, the Senior Hurricane Specialist from the Weather Channel called it “the most perfect storm he has ever seen.”

The result was that more than 7,000 people died around Tacloban, making this the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history. Filipinos are accustomed to typhoons as they make landfall nearly every year; their governmental institutions and culture are prepared to weather the storms. Haiyan simply overwhelmed their ability to cope; this typhoon was of a strength unprecedented in human history – how could they have prepared for this? The American security response, in which over 13,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were engaged the mission, certainly saved lives. Even weeks after the typhoon, doctors - transported to remote areas by U. S. Navy and Marine helicopters - were treating patients injured in the storm.

Moreover, they provided more than simply food, fresh water, and supplies; they prevented a downfall into lawlessness. In the days immediately after the storm, there were reports of radical Filipino insurgents hijacking aid supplies from Filipino government convoys. Once the Marines arrived, this was no longer a problem. Their presence helped to quell such violence before it became common – it stopped a humanitarian crisis from becoming a security crisis.

Left unchecked, it is not an exaggeration to say that climate change could make solving the other problems the world faces impossible. If we do not effectively address climate change, then it is clear that we will not be able to address the other challenges of the 21st century – and there are many. The Marines (and our entire Department of Defense) can help in solving the problems prevented by climate change, but only the world’s governments, acting together, can work to actually solve the underlying problems of climate change. It is time to get to work.


BGen Stephen Cheney is the CEO of the American Security Project and Andrew Holland is Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate

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