Will global warming threaten national security?

Forget WMD -- Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Hagel want a National Intelligence Estimate on the security challenges posed by climate change.

Topics: Environment, Global Warming, Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Homeland Security,

How might U.S. national security be threatened by mega-droughts, coastal flooding, killer hurricanes, food scarcity and the other ecological calamities scientists widely predict will occur if global warming continues apace?

No one knows, but Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., think it’s time to find out. Two weeks ago, the bipartisan duo introduced a bill that would require federal intelligence agencies to collaborate on a National Intelligence Estimate to evaluate the security challenges presented by climate change.

The bill’s debut is well timed. First, it comes just before the release of a big report on the expected impacts of global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Officially unveiled on April 6, the report paints a sobering picture of the increased famine, drought, heat waves, fires, storms and infectious-disease outbreaks that we can expect to riddle the globe, particularly in the world’s poorest nations, if current warming trends aren’t reversed. Second, it comes just as Britain has scheduled an April 17 meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss potential security threats posed by climate change — the first time that body will consider the issue.

National Intelligence Estimates — NIEs in intelligence lingo — “are about as authoritative as it gets when it comes to written judgments concerning national security issues,” explains Joe Shoemaker, Durbin’s press secretary. “They are developed to address the most serious of threats.” It was an NIE on Iraq’s program to build weapons of mass destruction, for instance, that the Bush administration used as key evidence (albeit deeply flawed) in making its case for invading Iraq. Other subjects of NIEs in recent years have included nuclear-weapons development in Iran and the likelihood of a Sunni-Shiite civil war breaking out in Iraq.

NIEs involve 16 intelligence agencies — including the CIA, the FBI and various military intelligence arms — working together typically over three to six months, pooling data and sharing perspectives to assemble a comprehensive picture of threats to U.S. security. “It would be a significant investment of time and resources,” says Shoemaker.

Durbin, assistant Senate majority leader, has long supported a federal cap on greenhouse gases, and is now broadening his case for action against climate change. “For years, too many of us have viewed global warming as simply an environmental or economic issue,” he said in introducing the new bill at a Senate hearing. “We now need to consider it as a security concern.” Durbin characterized climate change consequences as “a clear and present danger to the United States” and “a potential threat multiplier for instability around the world.”

Hagel, a possible contender for the GOP presidential nomination, led the effort to block U.S. participation in the Kyoto treaty and continues to staunchly oppose mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases, but he has been a leader among moderate Republicans in moving to address climate change in other, nonregulatory ways. “Sen. Durbin and I differ on policy initiatives designed to reduce the impact of climate change,” Hagel said at the hearing. “We do agree, however, on the need to assess potential impacts of the changing climate on U.S. national security interests.”

Perhaps Hagel considers this bill a good way to position himself for a presidential run — combining national security, a key GOP issue, with climate change, the big topic du jour.

Environmentalists applaud the bipartisan measure. “It’s welcome to see Hagel pairing with Durbin on this,” David Doniger of the Natural Resource Defense Council says. “But it would be even more welcome to see him embrace the need for deep, mandatory cuts in global-warming pollution.” To recognize the severity of the threat but not support a meaningful solution, said Doniger, is “a bit of an internal contradiction.”

Hagel’s support for this bill nevertheless represents an important turnabout for Republicans. There was an effort during the Clinton administration to broaden the definition of national security to include environmental and humanitarian threats like climate change and famine, but, said Doniger, “Republicans pooh-poohed it as namby-pamby stuff, as though the real men only dealt with bombs. Look where that approach got us.”

Times have indeed changed since the Clinton era. Not only has the scientific community come to virtual consensus on the reality of climate change, but conflicts over resource scarcity have intensified. “Some say that what we’re seeing in Darfur, [Sudan,] for instance, is at its core a climate change war,” said Doniger. “It’s driven by drought that causes the farmers to fight for limited access to arable land and pasture.”

These are precisely the kinds of conditions that the NIE would evaluate. Said Durbin at the Senate hearing, “Many of the most severe effects of global warming are expected in regions where fragile governments are least capable of responding to them.” He described Africa’s susceptibility to famine, and the flood vulnerability of low-lying coastal areas in the Asia-Pacific region, home to 58 percent of the world’s population. Disasters in such areas could displace hundreds of millions of people, overburden national militaries and require an international response. “This intelligence assessment will guide policymakers in protecting our national security and averting potential international crises,” Durbin said.

Dave Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Program, hopes the bill will help broaden the American public’s understanding of energy security. “Usually people equate that simply with reducing oil imports, but an equally if not more potent aspect of this challenge is using energy in a way that lessens the progression of global warming,” he said.

No date has yet been set for a vote on the bill, but Durbin’s staffers expect it to take place in the next two to six months. Shoemaker believes the bill has a good chance of passing into law, but predicts some initial pushback. “There will be those who balk and say that by requesting the NIE we’re now effectively equating global warming with military conflict,” he said, since NIEs have traditionally been used to assess military threats. “Our short answer would be, ‘Yes.’ In the long run, the threat level is, at the very least, comparable.”

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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