Sunday, January 31, 2010

QDR and Climate Change

Rob has a series of excellent posts up about the Quadrennial Defense Review and why progressives should care. I highly recommend them. I'd like to build on his work for a brief discussion of climate change and the QDR. For the first time, the QDR includes a section on climate change and defense policy.

That the new QDR even discusses climate change is a big step. The 2006 version, written during the Rumsfeld years, couldn't care less. That edition was all about fighting the never ending war on terror and acquiring new toys. Thankfully, the Gates Department of Defense has moved to more serious policy analysis.

And what of the QDR's first foray into thinking about climate change? It's quite mixed. DoD rightfully recognizes the threat rising sea levels provide to their own facilities. The entire Navy infrastructure faces a serious threat. The United States has such a long coastline that rising sea levels will likely force the nation to spend trillions of dollars either relocating facilities or keeping the ocean out.

The QDR does a less effective job thinking about how climate change will affect U.S. military involvement around the world. The military seems inordinately concerned with climate change and the Arctic. The thawing north will open up unexploited resources to the nations with Arctic boundaries. Corporations and governments are salivating. Plus, open Arctic waters means the U.S. and Russian navies will frequently be in close quarters.

While I can see the potential for conflict in an ice-free Arctic, the DoD doesn't seem to grasp the far more profound ways that climate change will likely affect U.S. military operations. Maybe I am too optimistic in thinking the Russians and Americans will come to a mutually profitable way to split Arctic resources, along with the Canadians and Scandinavian nations. But I think the significantly bigger issue is the massive geopolitical stability climate change could create around the world. The QDR only notes that the military needs to help other militaries prepare for natural disasters and notes that climate change could exacerbate already existing instabilities.

That's all true, but one short paragraph in the QDR barely touches the surface of what the U.S. military may face. Take Bangladesh. This low-laying, overpopulated and impoverished nation sits on the Indian Ocean, laced by major rivers filled with melted snow from the Himalayas. Under the best of circumstances, floods are a fact of life here. But rising sea levels combined with the likelihood of extreme typhoons has led many people to project 50 million climate change refugees from this one nation alone. Where are they going to go? India probably, since it's unlikely Myanmar will be welcoming. If Bangladesh destabilizes, how will the subcontinent and Southeast Asia more broadly respond? How will 50 million Muslims affect already shaky Hindu-Muslim relations within India? What will Pakistan do? This seems like precisely the kind of thing for which DoD should plan.

Talking about climate change and resource scarcity in the abstract is fine, but how will the military deal with real problems. For example, what happens if the Middle East enters a prolonged drought, Turkey impounds most of the water in the Tigris and Euphrates, and Iraq and Syria go thirsty? What will happen to this already unstable region? The QDR might not be the place to explain the details of these situations, but it seems fairly clear from the document that the military is still considering climate change as an abstract problem of the future.

Finally, the QDR commits the military to saving energy. This is fine and all, but slightly better fuel efficiency is hardly going to eliminate the military's contribution to climate change. Plus, in the face of a country almost completely unwilling to take the radical steps necessary to stablilize the climate, these minor actions won't make any difference in the long run.  The military also talks a lot about energy security. That's certainly a worthy goal, particularly if that energy comes from renewable sources, but the U.S. is unlikely to achieve energy independence any time in our lifetimes.

In the end then, the QDR's approach to climate change is a good first step, but little more. Its focus on energy policy over thinking through the real international security problems climate change will cause reveals a continued lack of imagination on climate change. Still, the military, and particularly the Navy, has made important strides in the last four years; hopefully, the next QDR will build upon these early ideas and show that climate change is central to U.S. foreign policy rather than the afterthought it appears to be today.