By Nafeez Ahmed, May 31, 2014. The Guardian.
Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images
During his speech at West Point Military Academy earlier this week, President Barack Obama described climate change as a “creeping national security crisis” that will require the armed forces to “respond to refugee flows, natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food.”
The speech emphasised that US foreign policy in the 21st century is increasingly being honed in recognition of heightened risks of social, political and economic upheaval around the world due the impacts of global warming.
A more detailed insight into US military planning could be seen in the report published a couple of weeks earlier by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Military Advisory Board, written and endorsed by a dozen or so senior retired US generals. Describing climate change as a not just a “threat multiplier,” but now – even worse – a “catalyst for conflict”, the study concluded that environmental impacts from climate change in coming decades:
“…. will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
To be sure, the link between climate change and the risk of violence is supported by many independent studies. No wonder, reports NBC News citing various former and active US officials, the Pentagon has long been mapping out strategies “to protect US interests in the aftermath of massive floods, water shortages and famines that are expected to hit and decimate unstable nations.”
But the era of climate warfare is not laying in wait, in some far-flung distant future. It has already begun, and it is accelerating – faster than most predicted. Pentagon officials and the CNA’s new study point to the Arab Spring upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa as a prime example.
As I’ve argued previously, violence and unrest in Syria and Egypt can be linked not just to the regional impacts of climate change in terms of water scarcity and food production, but also their complex interconnections with domestic oil and gas scarcity, neoliberal austerity, rampant inequality, endemic corruption, and massive political repression.
Such cases show that climate change in itself does not drive conflict – but the way in which climate change interacts with multiple related factors like declining oil production, food prices, and overlapping political, cultural and economic processes is already generating wild cards that repressive states are ill-equipped to deal with. In that context, such states resort to the thing they do best in an increasingly uncertain world: more repression.
As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned in its latest climate impacts assessment, though, more repression just makes things even worse, triggering a vicious cycle of increasing vulnerabilty to climate destabilisation.
A new study accepted for publication in the July issue of the American Meteorological Society’s journal Weather, Climate, and Society, underscores the role of climate change and drought in Syria’s ongoing civil war, which by some accounts has taken the lives of over 150,000 people.
The research paper by Dr Peter Gleick demonstrates clearly that the Syrian conflict is not just a climate war, or a resource war, but a water war. Between 2006 and 2011, the country suffered the worst long-term drought and the most severe set of crop failures in recorded history.
This was compounded by water mismanagement and economic deterioration which, in turn, led to further agricultural failures, population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities. The resulting combination of urban unemployment, inequality and food insecurity, affecting over a million people, heightened sectarian tensions, and helped spark the social unrest that exploded into conflict.
But the destabilising role of climate change in Syria did not come to light solely with hindsight – US officials were aware for years of the risks. In his paper, Dr Gleick, who is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security – refers to leaked US diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Damascus to the State Department in Washington DC warning of the implications of the unprecedented drought. In Gleick’s words:
“That cable describes a briefing by FAO Syrian Representative Abdullah bin Yehia on drought impacts, which he described as a ‘perfect storm’ when combined with other economic and social pressure. Concerns expressed at that time also noted that the population displacements ‘could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play and undermine stability in Syria.’”
The response of the US national security apparatus (and that of its poodlish ally Britain) to such warnings is instructive. As I wrote in The Guardian last year, from 2009 through to 2011, US and UK special forces were training “Syrian opposition forces” with a view to elicit the “collapse” of Bashir al-Assad’s regime “from within.”
While that oil-soaked, blood-drenched geopolitical gamble appears to have failed, the US and regional partner Israel have accommodated themselves to what the New York Times described as a “horrific” status quo that is nevertheless “preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.” The west, adds America’s newspaper of record, “needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable.”
And this, indeed, is the problem: Viewed through the narrow, self-serving, systematically abused lens of ‘national security’ (which of course is the noble title of the American intelligence agency responsible for mass surveillance of entire populations), climate change becomes not a springboard for much-need social transformation to save the planet; instead it becomes the beaten-to-death horse justifying innovative new ways to save the profits of the few who run the planet.
Take a look at the CNA’s thoughts on climate change and Africa, for instance. Africa is “an increasingly important source of US oil and gas imports,” but is “suffering tension and stress resulting from weakgovernance” and “food and water shortages” to be exacerbated by climate change. The Pentagon’s new Africa Command thus “reflects Africa’s emerging strategic importance to the US.” A “worsening ofconditions” due to climate impacts “could prompt further US militaryengagement.”
So far the record hasn’t been spectacular. Consider how the US and UK have tacitly overseen the expansion of Islamist extremism across North Africa at the behest of client-regime-aka-terror-state Algeria – all to access its oil and gas; a short-sighted strategy that indirectly led to the recent Nigeria crisis.
The securitisation of climate change – and with it the entire planet – is not leading to meaningful transformative action to transform the social relations necessary to mitigate and prevent dangerous global warming. Instead, while climate change accelerates, the corporate-military-industrial complex accelerates profits. Indeed, the very companies most responsible for climate change are set to make a killing from its intensification.
“I think climate change is a real opportunity for the aerospace and defense industry,” said Lord Drayson, then British Minister of State for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, in 2009.
One of the world’s largest defence contractors, Raytheon, agrees. In a briefing to the Carbon Disclosure Project last year, the corporation said that “expanded business opportunities will arise” as a result of “security concerns and their possible consequences,” due to the “effects of climate change” both at home and abroad in the form of “storms, droughts, and floods.”
This is what happens when one views the world, even with the best of intentions, through the twin lenses of military might and economic clout. We become incapable of recognising that the fundamental obstacle to addressing our global challenges is that we see enemies everywhere.
Climate change can create security risks, but to deal with them seriously, we need to stop projecting and recognise our own hand in the violence we’re so terrified of out there.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an international security journalist and academic. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and the forthcoming science fiction thriller, ZERO POINT. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @nafeezahmed.