Sunday, August 09, 2009

Global warming and national security

Today's New York Times warns that global warming may be a threat to national security:
The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.
A couple of cynical thoughts:
  • Incorporating a national security angle is a great way to advance an otherwise unpopular argument and minimize opposition.
  • The military has a self-interest in promoting the perception of a dangerous, unstable and violent world. Downplaying threats is not a good way of obtaining budget increases.
But even if we accept the premise, that man-made climate change is real and will lead to sustained and significant deleterious effects, I am still not sure it makes sense to blame it for any conflicts. After all, while resources are limited in all countries, few countries engage in open conflict over them. The United States has suffered any number of climate-related disasters in its history, yet that hasn't produced the food shortages or conflict that is now being warned about.

As Idean Salehyan argues, the real culprit isn't climate change, but poor governance:
To be sure, resource scarcity and environmental degradation can lead to social frictions. Responsible, accountable governments, however, can prevent local squabbles from spiraling into broader violence, while mitigating the risk of some severe environmental calamities. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has observed, no democracy has ever experienced a famine. Politicians who fear the wrath of voters usually do their utmost to prevent foreseeable disasters and food shortages. Accountable leaders are also better at providing public goods such as clean air and water to their citizens.
Indeed, those countries with the greatest levels of economic freedom also tend to have fairly harmonious and prosperous societies. Read the whole thing, which makes great points about the relationship between resources and conflict and non-military means of responding to climate change.

Update: Cafe Hayek points out that Las Vegas seems to do alright despite being resource-poor.

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