Climate Change and U.S. National Security: a Geoeconomic Approach

In May 2013 and February 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry defined climate change as a global strategic threat. In May 2013, he declared: “… A principal challenge to all of us of life and death proportions is the challenge of climate change… So it’s not just an environmental issue and it’s not just an economic issue. It is a security issue, a fundamental security issue that affects life as we know it on the planet itself, and it demands urgent attention from all of us” (John Kerry, Remarks with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld, May 14 2013).

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In February 2014, on a diplomatic tour in Jakarta, he said: “When I think about the array of global climate – of global threats – think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them. And it is a challenge that I address in nearly every single country that I visit as Secretary of State, because President Obama and I believe it is urgent that we do so” (John Kerry, Remarks on climate change, February 16, 2014).

Knowingly or not, Secretary Kerry is setting himself in the lineage of Sun Zi, one the greatest strategic minds of all times, who wrote at the beginning of his “Art of war”: “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of enquiry, which on no account can be neglected.”

Aerial_view_of_Tacloban_after_Typhoon_Haiyan

In his remarks, Secretary Kerry emphasizes the dramatic importance of the huge global damages due to the multiplication and intensification of extreme weather events, especially in Asia, because of the terrible damages inflicted on the Philippines by typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. However, defining climate change as a “national security issue” implies also thinking about its consequences on the US mainland, on the economy, the social cohesion of the American nation and on the wellbeing of U.S. citizens (Valantin, Guerre et Nature, 2013).

Life, death and time

In strategic and existential terms, climate change is a very difficult concept to grapple, because, at the human time-scale, it is and will be a never-ending process (IPCC fifth assessment report, 2013). Even if rapid, global and massive mitigation measures are quickly taken by all the nations of the world, climate change will be attenuated, but as a process, it won’t stop ( Jean-Michel Valantin, The Warming Arctic, a Hyper Strategic Crisis, 2014).

So, climate change is not a crisis, because a crisis is a singular moment between the end of a certain kind equilibrium and the establishment of a new one.  That makes of climate change a “non crisis”, a “new normal”, which is defined by perpetual, and maybe always worsening, change. Climate change has entered the daily life of humanity and is going to affect and alter it in complex and various ways (James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency, 2005).

It has become a national security issue because it puts under permanent pressure the infrastructures, the economy, the living places, the agriculture, the water extraction, treatment and distribution, the health, and the social cohesion upon which rests the United States as a nation (as is the case actually for each and every country). Climate change is a “global stressor” (EPA, Climate impacts on global issues, 9 september 2013), which exerts a permanent and systemic pressure on all the vulnerabilities of the American society.

Climate change as a geoeconomic offensive?

Packard_Plant_RuinsFrom a strategic point of view, climate change is a multidimensional threat and could be very analogous to a geo-economic offensive war, of various forms on the different regions, latitudes and economic activities of the U.S. mainland. Theorized since 1990, a “geoeconomic war” is thought as a way to inflict a country the same kind of damages that could be wrought by military means, especially infrastructure bombing, but through economic means (The National Interest, Edward Luttwak, From Geopolitics to Geoeconomics, 1990.

In a very strange and surprising way, climate change appears as a new kind of economic disruptive force, and its impacts are quite analogous to a prolonged geoeconomic offensive.

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This appears quite clearly in the evolution known by the U.S. insurance industry. According to Ceres, the annual cumulated costs of all natural disasters in the United States during the eighties reached approximately 3 billion dollars a year. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, this yearly total amounted to 20 billion dollars a year (with spikes, for example in 2005, due to the devastation of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina).

In 2011 and 2012, these costs have exploded, due to the very intense and early tornado season, and the devastation it brought to the Midwest. The situation appeared dire enough to lead Frank Nutter, the President of the Reassurance Association of America (RAA), to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public works.

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This testimony was an opportunity to explain how the number of extreme weather and climate related events, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and storms, is growing rapidly, while hammering densely populated spaces, like coastal shoreline regions, where more than 123 million people  (i.e. 39% of the U.S. population) live (Testimony of Franklyn Nutter, Climate change: it’s happening now, July 18, 2013). It must also be remembered that, due to global warming, sea levels are rising faster than thought a few years ago (The Independent, Sea levels rising more quickly than predicted, war scientists, 28 November 2012).

Meanwhile, hurricane Sandy inflicted more than 50 billion dollars damages for homes and infrastructure to New York and to the state of New Jersey, while 116 people were killed.

Furthermore, climate change impacts U.S. economic activity, through semi-continental weather events, which can slow or disrupt the way people work or go to work, as has been seen during the different “polar vortex” episodes during the 2013-2014 winter.

 What Frank Nutter makes very clear is the way people, home, communities, and infrastructure are increasingly exposed to the multiplication of weather related shocks, in material as well as financial ways, while the federal means of action are at risk to be wanting in the face of this social-climate trend of insecurity (Nutter, ibid).

This new economic-climate insecurity takes other forms. For example, the long drought of the summer 2012 affected more than 80% of US agricultural land. If the effects were less severe than expected, they were felt on livestock food prices during the last quarter of 2012 and through slight but widely distributed rises in prices for different kinds of agricultural products (cereals, dairy, poultry, fruits) on the U.S. and international markets (USDA: U.S Drought 2012, Farm and Food Impacts, July 26, 2013).

New water stress

These difficulties go hand in hand with new structural difficulties due to the long drought that impacts the Midwest, from the Great Plains to California, and the return of “dust bowls”, stemming from the aridity of soils created by the lack of rain water and hotter conditions (Scientific American, Melissa Gaskill, Climate Change Threatens Long Term Sustainability of Great plains, nov 17, 2012).

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During the nineteen-thirties, the era of the Great Depression, dust bowls disrupted the whole farming system and the network of rural and agricultural communities (The Center for a New American Security, Katherine Kidder, GAO: Climate Change Puts U.S Agriculture at High Risk, May 3, 2013). The return of a “dust bowlification” forces farmers to increase irrigation, and thus to intensify the pressure on already overused aquifers (The New-York Times, Blain and Kytle, The Dust Bowl Returns, 10 feb 2014).

Complex water stress is also emerging as a disruptive issue because of the convergence of different kinds of competition over this crucial resource. First, we may have rivalry between States, for example those sharing the Colorado river (Fred Pearce, When the Rivers Run Dry, 2006). Then, this competition may then meet another one, occurring between shale gas production on the one hand, and agriculture and human needs, on the other, in places where the shale gas industry needs water for fracking (Forbes, Ken Silverstein, Water Shortages Could Dry Up Shale Gas Craze, 11/17/2013). Then again, water competition in a time of drought also takes place between cities and rural areas, between industry and field cultures, not forgetting the individual uses of water (from sanitary uses to lawn sprinkling and home swimming pools), especially in the Southwest (Earth Future, the American geophysical association, Modeling US Water resources under Climate Change, 2013).

climate change, red (team) analysis, geoeconomics

Furthermore, besides extreme weather events, winter itself becomes a less reliable support for snow (i.e frozen water) tourism. In January 2014, California was only at 12% of its snowpack, while the Pacific Northwest was only at 50% (NYT, Porter Fox, The End of Snow?, Feb.7, 2014). These are the most recent occurrences of a trend, which already exacts a toll: since 1999, low snowfalls have cost almost 1 billion dollar and 27000 jobs to the ski industry (Fox, ibid).

Also, it must be understood that these geoeconomic impacts have systemic relations between and with the broader economic context of the U.S. economic, financial, debt and currency crisis (Voice of America, Report: recurring Financial Crises Hurt US Economy, October 15 2013). In other terms, as a “global stressor” (EPA, Climate Impact on Global Issues, 9 september 2013), climate change has started to exacerbate the very weaknesses that are building up in the different sectors and layers of the U.S. economic system, and thus the current sustainability of the U.S. as a society, a nation under a federal government perceived as legitimate (Hélène Lavoix, A Road to Hell ? Climate change and public deficit, 2013).

The strange end of the American exception?

The geoeconomic perspective on climate change in the U.S. reveals an unanticipated new reality: America is the “operational theatre” from which are emerging a large number and a wide diversity of climate-related situations of collective insecurity, from water tensions, to coastal, agricultural and urban systemic risks, knowing that these new situations could very well be there for an extremely long period of time.

Unfortunately, this domestic climatic geoeconomic situation is only one part of the new American climate insecurity, because the United-States are one of the main engines and center of globalization. The way the globalized world is destabilized by climate change, and the way the domestic U.S. climate change’s impacts are globalized and blow back, added to the way the U.S. and especially the National Defense and Security apparatus will be able to adapt (Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012, Climate change adaptation Roadmap), when, and for how long, are another complex dimension of the same strategic issue.

To be (soon) continued.

 Featured image: From  U.S. Coast Guard’s Photos in Cold winds and seas -26 January 2014, Official US Coast Guards Facebook Page.

4 thoughts on “Climate Change and U.S. National Security: a Geoeconomic Approach”

  1. Interesting perspective – and on target… “climate change” as a continuous process may change the United States focus to a more internal one. This could happen as the regions of North America repeatedly cope with wide area and massive impacts of climactic catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy, western drought and depleted aquifers, and Arctic vortexes. These events not only impact the economic engine, but turn political leaders and the public alike to look inward and increase the probability of an isolationist viewpoint and policy. The pre-war neutrality, regional focus and isolationist U.S. policies may have in the long run exacerbated the destruction of both world wars – and the U.S then represented about half its current share of global production. In fact, the resurgent Russia’s economy is smaller than that of the troubled, drought stricken and earthquake prone state of California alone.

    1. Thanks a Lot Eugene, and you’re right to the point: we’re talking about major political evolutions here. Plus, there is avery singular dimension about climate change that makes it very difficult to consider : climate change won’t stop, which means that the hammering not only won’t stop, but will intensify.
      We’re talking about a new collective relation of society to time, here.
      The only way out is in a mix of very strong global strategies of mitigation, adaptation and resiliency.
      Thanks a lot for your support,
      Best,
      Jean-Michel

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