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In a remarkable document released Monday, National Security and the Threat of Global Climate Change, eleven retired U.S. generals and admirals devote their considerable prestige and credibility to making the case that global warming is not merely a threat to the survival of polar bears but a grave and growing threat to U.S. national security. Their main thesis is that rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses will exacerbate instability and state failure “in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” While no country will remain untouched, the authors note,

Many developing countries do not have the government and social infrastructures in place to cope with the types of stressors that could be brought on by global climate change.

The spillover affects, the authors predict, will range from uncontrolled migration to pandemic disease, violent conflict, and transnational terrorism. Such transnational threats have often been associated with state failure. (See for example, my CGD working paper Weak States and Global Threats: Assessing Evidence of Spillovers).

The most striking aspect of this document is the readiness of senior former U.S. military officials to connect the dots between long-term development trends, on the one hand, and U.S. grand strategy and military posture on the other. This is a sea change from the 1990s. Back then, “serious” strategic thinkers dismissed concerns about environmental degradation, global health, demographic stresses, resource scarcity, and humanitarian crisis as mere “social work.” No longer. This call to arms -- by people who have actually borne them, like retired CENTCOM commander Tony Zinni and former Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan -- signals a new era of understanding within the U.S. military. For advocates of action on global warming, the report is priceless.

That said, a couple of quibbles: First, some of the more dire scenarios presuppose a complex -- and contestable -- set of causal linkages. An example is the sweeping claim by retired Admiral T. Joseph Lopez that “climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.” Such a contention requires accepting a host of causal assumptions regarding the underlying causes of terrorism, not least the presumed linkages among climate stresses, poverty, social upheaval, political extremism, and the mobilization of transnational terrorist networks. One can spin a plausible narrative here, but it requires a lot of assumptions.

Second, the report is quick to presume that environmental scarcity and stress will engender violent conflict. And yet -- as the report acknowledges -- there is ample evidence that such conditions often stimulate inter-group cooperation and even “environmental peace-making,” particularly when it comes to competition over shared water resources (see the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Peacemaking, for example). As political scientist Colin Kahl reminds us in his recent book, States, Scarcity, and Civil Strife in the Developing World, the connection between environmental stress and violent conflict is neither direct nor inevitable: it is mediated by the resilience, inclusiveness and responsiveness of state institutions, as well as by the presence (or absence) of existing social cleavages that can be exploited by opportunistic political leaders. While there are no grounds for complacency, the fact that the many of the impacts of climate change will be felt gradually may provide opportunity for local, national, regional, and international-level mediation and resolution of emerging conflicts.

These are minor complaints, however. Overall this new report from respected retired U.S. military leaders is a timely reminder of the risks for the United States and the world community in the unprecedented ecological experiment that humanity is now conducting.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.