As 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it also marks the beginning of a new era of challenges posed by threats that were little recognized and less appreciated those 20 short years ago: climate change and energy security.

Simply put – as a matter of science and as a matter of military assessment, planning and preparedness – the fact of global climate change and the challenges of energy security pose serious risks to the stability of many regions of the world. And these two interwoven security threats will dominate and shape the state of nations in the decades to come.

That is not wild speculation but the sober assessment of the CNA-convened Military Advisory Board (MAB) which first raised this issue in its 2007 report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change .

The MAB found that climate change has the potential to create instability in economic, environmental, and social issue areas, acting as a “threat multiplier,” particularly in the most fragile regions of the world. 

As well-documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most direct impacts of climate change will be on the environment, specifically manifesting through: retreating glaciers, rising seas, hurricanes and storms of increasing severity, floods, heat waves, drying soils, drought, shifting habitats, the spread of diseases.

The victims of these changes will be the people living in these environments. Those populations will face such life-threatening consequences as vastly reduced water supplies, decreasing long-term agricultural productivity, ill health, and mass migrations forced by the changing environment. That is what is meant by “threat multiplier” and as those impacts are felt, regional states will begin to understand they lack the capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change. The threats will multiply again as resentment builds toward the developed world, which will be seen as responsible for spawning the climate crisis.

Many nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East already stagger under the weight of extreme poverty, pervasive hunger, social unrest, and political instability – all of which climate change will only exacerbate, further eroding the legitimacy of many governments and heightening international security concerns.

In Asia, fresh water for hundreds of millions of people comes from glaciers that may not exist by mid-century. In the Middle East, rising seas threaten to contaminate aquifers, reducing precious fresh water resources in the region. In Africa, many trace the genocide in Darfur to the impacts of climate change, and land that now supports crops and animals is quietly, inexorably, turning to desert.

For weakened and failing governments, conditions wrought by climate change will lead to a rise in extremism, internal conflicts, radical ideologies, and authoritarianism – all of which are likely to lead to a dramatic increase in the number of humanitarian-assistance and crisis response missions launched by the international community.

Perhaps the most dangerous and potentially destabilizing potential result of climate change is mass migration. As the world’s population continues to grow (an increase of over a billion people in just the past 12 years), migratory pressures become a major concern even without the added pressures brought on by extreme climate conditions.  But with climate change added to the equation, the problem has the potential to increase exponentially.

Nations unable to respond and adapt to the impacts of climate change will, by default, force citizens to, literally, seek greener pastures. Migrations within nations and regions, and across borders and continents, are hugely destabilizing events – for the nations being evacuated and those being populated. Disorder, poverty, disenfranchisement, cultural clashes, overtaxed social welfare mechanisms; all are consequences of human migrations from have-not nations, and are serious challenges to be faced in the decades ahead by many, if not all, of the haves.

Many other strategic challenges lie ahead as well.

The thawing Arctic ice cap, for example, may be the first test of climate change impacts.  As NATO Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer said in January 2009, “Here in the High North, climate change is not a fanciful idea, it is already a reality … [and] … although the long-term implications of climate change and the retreating ice cap in the Arctic are still unclear, what is very clear is that the High North is going to require even more of the Alliance’s attention in the coming years.”

That is because as the ice thins, NATO members – including the United States, Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, in competition with each other and with Russia – are scrambling to claim the resources trapped for millennia beneath frozen waters.  (In 2007, Russia staked its claim by planting its flag 14,000 feet below the North Pole). And with the no-longer-ice-bound Northwest Passage emerging as a viable trade route, legal disputes and competition for resources could also increase.

The complex challenge posed by a warming earth is further complicated by the other great challenge of this era: energy security. The age of inexpensive fossil energy will end soon – within decades – and well before the world is prepared to deal with its demise. So as we struggle to manage the impacts of climate change, we must also adjust to a fundamental change in the way we use energy.

This issue was also assessed by CNA’s Military Advisory Board in its report Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security . Released in May 2009, the report’s clearly stated findings constitute their own set of challenges that America must address beginning now:  

1) Our nation’s current energy posture is a serious and urgent threat to our national security, with U.S. dependence on oil undermining our national security on multiple fronts, and our outdated, fragile and overtaxed national electrical grid existing as a dangerously weak link in our national security infrastructure.

2) A business-as-usual approach to energy security poses an unacceptably high threat level from a series of converging risks.

3) Achieving energy security in a carbon-constrained world is possible, but will require concerted leadership and continuous focus.

4) The national security planning processes have not been sufficiently responsive to the security impacts of our current energy posture.

5) In the course of addressing its most serious energy challenges, the U.S. Department of Defense can contribute to national solutions as a technological innovator, early adopter, and test-bed.

At present, the U.S. and nearly every other nation on the globe are uncomfortably tied to the oil- and gas-rich countries of the world. This leaves us continually vulnerable to supply disruptions (a weakness that has not gone unnoticed by terrorist and criminal organizations) and complicates our nation’s foreign policy decisions by forcing unwelcome compromises on such issues as human rights and democracy.

Myriad other reasons (including mitigation of climate change) dictate we move away from carbon-emitting fuels. But one of the most practical is the fact that at some point, perhaps soon, the world’s oil supply will no longer meet demand.

Simple prudence dictates that we face this reality now. To sustain the rate of global progress enjoyed during the 20th century, new, secure and sustainable sources of energy must be developed that are readily accessible and affordable. 

The size and scope of the challenges we face must not prevent us from taking action to guard against what is likely to be a dangerous future. And while we cannot prevent all the negative consequences of climate change and energy challenges, we can, by acting now, ensure a better future for the generations that follow us.

General Charles F. Wald, USAF (Ret.) is former Deputy Commander, Headquarters U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and Chairman, CNA Military Advisory Board. He is also a Director on the Atlantic Council Board. Sherri Goodman is CNA Senior Vice President & General Counsel and Executive Director, CNA Military Advisory Board. David M. Catarious, Jr., PhD is Study Director, CNA Military Advisory Board.
This essay appears in Freedom’s Challenge, the Atlantic Council’s book celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.