Since at least the 1979 Iranian revolution, intelligence and national security analysts have been working hard to identify the causal factors that lead to political instability. Working hard and yet struggling. Many factors, such as high infant mortality, have been found to correlate with the onset of political instability, and yet these factors have low predictive value; many countries that have relatively high rates of infant mortality, for example, also remain relatively stable year after year. The variables that correlate with political instability may be necessary but apparently they are not sufficient to trigger societal unrest.
In the last twenty years, a new set of variables has emerged associated with climate change. As world temperatures rise, international experts predict that more frequent droughts, water shortages, and agriculture shortfalls will destabilize more and more societies, creating new national security headaches for the U.S. These experts contend that the years of political chaos in Syria foreshadow the future. The drought that preceded the Syrian civil war was the worst in 900 years. It directly led to the migration of hundreds of thousands of Syrians from rural to urban areas, creating a tinderbox of frustrated citizens.
Although the plot line in Syria is certainly compelling, it doesn’t quite prove that climate change will have significant impacts on national security issues in the coming years. There’s no doubt in my mind that the internal migration of people caused by the drought contributed to Syria’s instability. But the causal connection between warming temperatures and this particular drought in Syria has yet to be established. Many scientists believe there’s a connection but, to my knowledge, they can’t prove it.
That’s the first problem with the argument directly linking climate change to national security issues. Natural disasters have always plagued human society; it will take many years, if not decades, before we will be able to establish a strong causal link between an increase in such disasters and changing global climate. Obviously, the consequences of climate change will stress many societies, particularly those with governments that lack the capacity and/or foresight to adapt. But identifying exactly which countries will be affected and when – that’s another matter entirely. I suspect that it will be impossible to know in advance which countries will be able to manage the consequences of drought, flooding, and changes in water supply, and which won’t. This in turn will make it difficult for U.S. national security leaders to plan specifically for these new risks. Morocco, for example, has also been suffering from severe drought in recent years, but not yet from disastrous instability.
Another problem is that these impacts of climate change will play out over long periods of time and in indirect and therefore difficult-to-predict ways. Previous periods of climate change are illustrative in this regard. From the 10th to the 13th centuries most of the planet experienced a gradual warming known now as the Medieval Optimum. It was during this period that the name Greenland was actually descriptive and the Vikings wandered onto the North American continent. But the Medieval Optimum was followed by the Little Ice Age. The colder temperatures that affected Europe for the next 200-300 years led to famines and perhaps helped fuel the Black Death that killed upwards of 50 percent of Europe’s population. There’s even a theory that the Black Death in turn helped intensify the Little Ice Age. The precipitous decline in population led to less agriculture. As forests reclaimed agricultural land, trees absorbed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus further cooling the planet. A complex chain of events over hundreds of years created a web of consequences that changed Europe and other parts of the world. But no government – then or now – could have anticipated them.
There is, however, a more nuanced and yet more immediate way that the consequences of climate change will affect U.S. national security. By turning away from the international climate consensus, the U.S. is sacrificing its ability to influence and lead on an issue considered a very serious problem and an immediate threat by more than 50 percent of the world population. This, in turn, will tend to weaken U.S. soft power. International affairs abhor leadership vacuums, and China seems capable of stepping into the breach, both politically but perhaps more to the point, economically. China is becoming the world leader in energy technologies. Five out of the six leading solar panel manufacturers are Chinese, as are five out of the ten leading wind turbine makers. Beijing is also innovating in areas such as emissions trading systems and green capital markets. China may be able to parlay its prowess on clean energy into greater influence on other global economic issues, further enhancing its soft power.
Again, history provides us with some examples of how such dynamics can evolve. After WWI, for example, the U.S. failed to join the League of Nations and, particularly during the Great Depression, exhibited isolationist preferences. The U.S. did not respond forcefully to Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 or Germany’s early aggressions in Europe, and we know how that story ended. In the Cold War era, the U.S. was conflicted in its approach to nations gaining independence from their colonial masters. The U.S. worry that these new governments would come under the influence of the Soviet Union and China became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moscow and Beijing had no qualms in supporting new African and Asian states, insuring them decades of useful influence over these governments.
In a complex world where information flows freely and effective power takes many forms, nations must balance multiple policy imperatives to exert and sustain influence. Turning your back on international norms will cost you, perhaps not immediately but certainly over time. And Chinese culture and the Chinese government both have a long-term orientation toward time and strategy. As Confucius said: “Looking at small advantages prevents great affairs from being accomplished.”
Over the coming months, The Cipher Brief, in conjunction with the Stimson Center, will be publishing a Natural Security Series featuring articles on the convergence between environmental and national security issues. Be sure to check in tomorrow for the next part of the Natural Security Series.