With the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review and the looming debate over the Waxman-Markey bill, securitizing climate change is in vogue. However, proponents of securitizing climate change, particularly on the grounds of the Responsibility to Protect concept, are mistaken.
There is little disputing the predictions of more severe weather, dwindling natural resources and rising sea levels. Yet, there are very few scenarios where climate change actually affects the traditional measures of national security—existential threats, defense of U.S. territory, and the defense of U.S. citizens within American territory. Stephen Walt recently observed:
It is entirely possible that climate change could provoke major refugee movements in certain areas (e.g., Bangladesh), and that such a development could have powerful effects on neighboring countries (e.g., India). But instead of immediately concluding that American interests are at stake, isn’t this first and foremost India’s problem?
Walt’s sentiment, while perhaps blunt, accurately reflects how U.S. foreign policy is formed and conducted—that is, with primary attention paid to U.S. interests.
Proponents of securitizing climate change justify their position with the Responsibility to Protect human security concept. Unfortunately, there is a large disconnect between this ideal and the real considerations (noted above) that factor into a U.S. decision to deploy forces. Historically, the U.S. public has been extremely hesitant to deploy combat troops abroad.
If the U.S. fully subscribed to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, it likely would have intervened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where millions have been killed as a result of mass migration, as well as in Darfur, where increasing desertification is a cause of the violence. The effects of climate change have driven both of these conflicts.
This trend of non-intervention will probably continue for the foreseeable future; it is doubtful the U.S. will deploy troops into active combat zones without a direct appeal to national security concerns. Future conflicts in Asia and Africa are likely to be met with similar responses.
Furthermore, even if the U.S. were willing to intervene on the grounds of a responsibility to protect, capabilities and international norms pose major problems. To pick up Walt’s example, if the Bengali refugees cause large-scale ethnic strife, the U.S. military can do little about it. India has the ability to prevent American interference through military means and the institutional norms of the international system. Additionally, if a country doesn’t have the ability to fend off American military intervention, the United States simply does not have the resources to aid in every crisis.
In the United States’ near abroad, disasters and violence resulting from climate change do not fall under the purview of the military either. The DHS, INS and border patrol traditionally tackle immigration, the largest conceivable external threat to the U.S. resulting from climate change. Even not climate-change issues, like Mexico’s drug wars, are handled by government agencies rather than the military.
Other justifications for securitizing climate change are also misguided. The current policy debate does not evaluate the long-term consequences of what securitizing climate change really entails. Rather, it is driven by special interest groups and military budget concerns to adopt the concept of climate change as a strong national security threat; doing so can be profitable and serves as a reason for large appropriations in the face of a shrinking economy.
Billions are slated to be spent on combating the effects of climate change at home and abroad, but this should become a military responsibility. The military is currently only marginally more capable than other agencies of dealing with the challenges the world will face as a result of climate change. It does offer logistical helps, airlifts for example, but other institutions have better training and clarity of missions for specific tasks, managing mass immigration for example. The battle with climate change must ultimately be won with civilian planning, not rapid extractions and troop deployments.
Ross Rustici is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Environment Program. He is studying for an MA in International Relations and an MA in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University.