For a professional blowhard, there is no worse fate than being ignored. So I'm always—well, almost always—delighted when my posts get pushback, especially from people who are smart, well-informed and thoughtful. In my last post, "Hawkish U.S. Policies Pose Bigger Threat to Peace Than Climate Change," I complained that discussions of how global warming might lead to more war too often neglect U.S. instigation of lethal conflict. As an example of such neglect, I mentioned Neil Bhatiya and Tim Kovach's recent conversation on Bloggingheads.tv (which I nonetheless recommend for its skeptical treatment of simplistic predictions about climate and conflict). Bhatiya and Kovach sent me the following response:
In his blog post yesterday ("Hawkish U.S. Policies Pose Bigger Threat to Peace Than Climate Change"), John Horgan referenced our Bloggingheads discussion in his general critique of how researchers discuss climate change and conflict, especially the role of the U.S. military. We felt it necessary to respond and clarify some points with regard to what we believe in terms of the military’s role in U.S. climate change policy, as well as address broader points about the research behind climate change and conflict.
No one can ignore the grave personal costs of U.S. military interventions of the past thirteen years, not only for civilian populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, but also to U.S. servicemen and -women who have been called on by their political leadership to implement policy. We do not think it is controversial to say that our track record with armed nation building is not one to emulate. Yet those interventions, as large and destructive as they were, do not reflect the totality of the U.S. military’s contributions to our foreign policy goals, nor should they prejudice the demonstrated utility of the U.S. military in humanitarian response and disaster relief (HADR), a capability that is expected to increase with accelerating climate change.
Mr. Horgan seems to be suggesting that because the U.S. military has implemented problematic policies in one sphere, it is axiomatic that it cannot possibly be helpful in another sphere. Yet, as we are now seeing in the Ebola crisis raging in West Africa, the military can provide important logistical and command-and-control resources to bear in the wake of disasters and other emergencies. The U.S. military has played a vital role in the responses to a number of recent disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It is a political reality that no other institution can marshal the resources and wherewithal required to respond to these events on such short notice.
Yet, contrary to what Admiral Neil Morisetti has said, we are not among those who foresee direct military interventions by Western military forces in the immediate future. The burden of climate change impacts, and any potential conflicts arising from them, are much more likely to fall on the shoulders of our allied and partner nations. To suggest that the U.S. military and other bilateral and multilateral armed forces can and should be ready to respond to any security challenges that are created or exacerbated by climate change is not to suggest that the military will solve the entire problem at hand.
We are also both acutely aware of the risks of “securitizing” the climate discourse. As Daniel Deudney warned all the way back in 1990, there are real risks to couching climate change as a security issue. First, addressing the climate crisis will require a significant and sustained commitment by all countries, including key carbon emitters like the U.S. Our positing a role for the U.S. military in addressing the effects of climate change should not be interpreted as a slight to the critical importance of mitigation measures, which are, of course, outside the purview of the armed forces. There is a reason our Bloggingheads dialogue began with a discussion of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report. Neither of us would be satisfied if all of our efforts went into constant disaster relief with no corresponding effort to prevent the disasters in the first place. We believe that climate change is, first and foremost, a development challenge.
Furthermore, the logic of the military sector tends to precipitate an ever-increasing share of our limited financial and political resources, which could crowd out those needed for action on climate change. Securitization requires an enemy to target. Would that be other carbon emitting countries? That would be a recipe for world war. Would it be climate migrants fleeing intolerable living conditions? That would be a humanitarian catastrophe. Or would it be the changing climate itself? Setting aside the obvious challenges therein, this process could allow brutal dictators and warlords to blame the consequences of their actions on the climate bogeyman.
But while we both have our eyes open to the clear risks of securitizing the climate, we must also recognize that climate change will directly affect the military and that the military can play a constructive role in tackling the problem. It would be unwise for the U.S. Navy, for instance, to ignore the fact that rising sea levels pose a threat to several of its bases, including Norfolk and Pensacola. As a result, the Pentagon recently issued its second climate change roadmap, which outlines its adaptation plans. Furthermore, the Pentagon has the potential to use its interactions with other militaries, such as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, to enhance bilateral relations and strengthen the technical capacities of our partners to respond to climate change-related crises. Part of the defense and intelligence community’s responsibility is to assess threats and advise policymakers about them.
Lastly, as we suggested in the video, the discourse around climate change and conflict has become staid. There has been far too much fighting among researchers over the nuances of statistical models, which has made the field largely unapproachable to the layperson and opened the door for others to exaggerate their findings. There are still many details to hash out among scholars, such as whether or not floods or food crises could elevate the risk of violence, and to what extent. But there are also a number of emerging fields for research in this area that we believe have been given short shrift as a result of this back and forth. For instance, what are the security risks of climate change mitigation and adaptation programs, such as REDD+? How can we ensure that military responses to humanitarian crises are conflict-sensitive? Can we use climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction interventions to actively build peace in contentious settings?
In sum, far from arguing the military writ large is any kind of solution to climate change, we would want readers to understand that we feel it is one tool, a crucial one, in addressing it, but by no means the only one. The research on climate and conflict that Mr. Horgan critiques is meant to provide context in understanding a threat, not pave the way for the militarization of climate policy.
Neil Bhatiya is a Policy Associate at The Century Foundation, a progressive nonpartisan think tank, where he studies U.S. climate policy; Tim Kovach (timkovach.com) is an independent analyst who writes about issues involving climate change and environmental peace and conflict.