Framing Climate Change as a National Security Threat

How do you activate an otherwise disinterested Republican base on the issue of global warming? As we argued in our Policy Forum article at Science, two possible frames are to recast the issue as really a matter of moral duty or alternatively as an issue that might promote increased profits from new technologies.

In recent weeks a new frame strategy has emerged and it involves re-focusing attention to the issue around dimensions of national security. Again, advocates need to be careful here. The national security frame borders on a lot of the interpretations that have previously been attacked, sometimes justifiably, on grounds of alarmism.

Here's how the Center for American Progress effectively employs the national security interpretation in a recent email alert and Web posting:

Weather Of Mass Destruction

Last month, the Military Advisory Board, a panel of esteemed retired military officers, issued a report that found "projected climate change poses a serious threat to America's national security" over the next 30 to 40 years. The report -- "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" -- warned that there will be wars over water, increased hunger, instability from worsening disease and rising sea levels, and global warming-induced refugees. "The chaos that results can be an incubator of civil strife, genocide and the growth of terrorism," the report predicted. In an interview with The Progress Report, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that "if the impact of climate change is going to make regions of violence poorer, then they really provide a level of fertility for inciting disaffection, resentment against the prosperous world. That's an indirect effect that can create the conditions for terrorism." (Listen to the full 10-minute interview here.) Raising the ire of the right wing, the House Intelligence Committee took needed action to set aside funds in order to study the adverse impact that climate change may have on global security.

NATIONAL SECURITY EXPERTS ISSUE WARNING ABOUT WARMING: Leading environmental scientists predict that climate change will bring about reduced access to fresh water, impaired food production, more diseases, land loss and displacement of major populations. "While the developed world will be far better equipped to deal with the effects of climate change, some of the poorest regions may be affected most. This gap can potentially provide an avenue for extremist ideologies and create conditions for terrorism." The military experts said the fallout from global warming -- massive migrations, increased border tensions, greater demands for rescue and evacuation efforts, and conflicts over essential resources, including food and water -- could lead to direct U.S. military involvement. Ret. General Gordon Sullivan said, "We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world." A "ferocious drought and famine" were the driving forces behind the crisis in Darfur, which is "likely to be seen as the first climate change war."

CONGRESS RESPONDS TO THE THREAT: On the heels of the warnings from national security experts, the House Intelligence Committee last week voted to include a provision in the Intelligence Authorization bill that would set aside funds to study the impact of global warming on national security. "We're concerned that global warming might impact our ability to maintain national security," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX). "For that reason, intelligence analysts are already reviewing the impact of climate change to our nation's security. Our bill requires that the review be a formal National Intelligence Estimate and that the estimate be provided to Congress." Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) introduced a bill in March that would also propose similar action. The Military Advisory Board specifically recommended that the national security consequences of climate change be fully integrated into national defense strategies, and "the intelligence community should incorporate climate consequences into its National Intelligence Estimate." Because conservatives have blocked action on global warming, notes Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Joseph Romm, "progressives are driven to fund a serious effort by our intelligence agencies to understand the dangerous implications of our do-nothing climate policy."

DENIAL TAKES NEW FORM: Ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni, President Bush's former Middle East envoy, said, "It's not hard to make the connection between climate change and instability, or climate change and terrorism." Zinni underestimated the resistance to global warming science by the right wing. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), the ranking member on the intelligence committee, claimed, "There's no value added by the intelligence community" in assessing global warming's security impact. Hoekstra has previously said he's "not convinced" that we need to make "radical changes solely to address the issue of global warming." A statement from the House Republican Policy Committee said there is a real question "about whether global warming is a legitimate intelligence priority." The Pentagon disagrees. In 2003, it issued a report stating in clear language, "Because of the potentially dire consequences, the risk of abrupt climate change...should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern."

MITIGATING THE EFFECTS: The Military Advisory Board wrote, "Managing the security impacts of climate change requires two approaches: mitigating the effects we can control and adapting to those we cannot." Last week, the IPCC issued its third working group report urging immediate action to control climate change. According to the findings, "we have, at most, eight years to freeze and reverse emissions." Pachauri explained to The Progress Report, "We have to tell the people of the U.S. that this is something intimately connected with their present and their future. The cost of inaction is going to be far higher than action. And the cost of action is really not all that high." The technology "is available to make immediate change and in others, the capability is expected to develop within decades. Such is the case with advanced carbon capture and storage technology. When it comes to energy efficiency and conservation, it could simply be a matter of policies that give incentive to change." A recent Center for American Progress poll found that Americans urgently want solutions to curb global warming.


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Thanks for the post. A little off-topic, but I'd like to ask you about the aside you made about how some national security frames are alarmist. Can you point me to some examples?

I believe I'm familiar with some of the alarmism (The Day After's "freezing of America" scenario), and various cranks calling for us to live in caves, but I don't believe I've ever heard of national security alarmism attached to global warming. Nor, for that matter, other forms of alarmism in the press.

I'm interested in what you consider to be alarmism.

I think it helps clarify these debates if the concept of "national security" is defined. I would define it as the protection of health, freedom, and economic security for the inhabitants of the nation. Once defined in that way, it is clear that both environmental and public health initiatives are important parts of national security. Indeed, the interventions in those areas are likely far more cost-effective that the military ones.