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Even the Generals are Worried! Mission Creep, Climate Change, and National Security (Part 1)

By -- September 15, 2009

Last week, I attended a briefing on “Climate Change, Energy and National Security,” sponsored by the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), a veritable who’s who of (mostly former) moderate-to-liberal defense and foreign policy officials. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), former CIA Director James Woolsey, Ambassador Frank Wisner, and Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn USN (Ret.) were the featured speakers.

The self-described “blue ribbon” panel was unanimous, unequivocal, and very, very repetitive: Climate change is a national security issue; climate change threatens all Americans; combatting climate change should be a national security priority; transitioning to a clean energy economy can defeat both the climate change threat and the OPEC/Wahhabi/Terror threat.

Not-So-Strange-Strange Bedfellows

In one respect it’s surprising that climate change has not always been characterized as a national security issue. If Al Gore is correct and climate change “threatens the survival of civilization and the habitability of the Earth,” then of course climate change imperils national security. Yet for many years, there was little if any discussion along those lines — maybe because, traditionally, greenies looked askance at the “military-industrial complex” and vice versa.

If I’m not mistaken, the first thematic treatment linking global warming to national security was an October 2003 Pentagon-commissioned study by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall titled Imagining the Unthinkable: An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.

In Imagining the Unthinkable, the authors hypothesize what might happen to the global economy and international stability if increased ice melt and precipitation due to global warming disrupt the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) and Earth’s climate deteriorates into an ice age. Would the end of the world as we know it have “implications” for U.S. national security?

Well, duh! In page after pulse-pounding page, Schwartz and Randall describe a world convulsed by famine, food riots, water shortages, energy shortages, trade wars, displaced populations, and armed conflict within and among nations.

As it happens, the THC-shutdown scenario no longer has any scientific credibility — if it ever did (Schwartz and Randall conjecture that this catastrophe could occur as soon as 2010!). It’s not even clear that a disruption of the THC would have the climate-wrenching effects Schwartz and Randall assume. Al Gore, naturally, endorsed this doomsday fantasy in An Inconvenient Truth (2006), though he was not the first in the biz to bring it to the big screen. Warming-causes-cooling made its Hollywood debut two years earlier in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a preachy, Sci-Fi disaster film justly lampooned by South Park.

Whether or not Imagining the Unthinkable marked a turning point in the rhetoric of climate change, the collaboration between defense hawks and climate Cassandras was inevitable. Many a hawk (going as far back as President Richard Nixon) has decried America’s dependence on OPEC oil, a condition destined to continue as long as oil dominates the market for motor fuels. Petro-phobic hawks are thus predisposed to believe that government should tax and regulate us into a “clean energy future.” As much as any environmentalist, they seek a world “beyond petroleum” — exactly what cap-and-traders claim they can deliver.

The greening of the Pentagon — or the Pentagoning of climate advocacy, label it as you like — has political advantages for both groups. Cap-and-trade advocates gain allies respected by conservatives who, in general, not only oppose greater government control over energy markets, but also distrust green activists, UN bureaucrats, and the “authentic global governance” of which Kyoto is a key component.  “Even the generals are worried,” the greens lecture reluctant conservatives.

Especially inside-the-beltway, the political correlation of forces would shift in favor of Gorethodoxy once the Pentagon acquires a financial stake in promoting climate alarm. Integrate climate change into Pentagon strategic assessments, planning, and capabilities, and DOD will espouse climate doom to justify new and bigger appropriations for studies, staff, R&D, low-carbon-footprint tanks, planes, ships, etc.

Then there’s the debate-stopping trump card — “It’s a matter of national security.” Members of the PSA panel were big on this one. Quoting the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s (R-MI) famous declaration that “Politics stop at the water’s edge,” they called for an end to partisan wrangling over climate and energy policy. The twin evils of oil dependency and climate change threaten all Americans, so America needs a bipartisan climate and energy policy, they said. Loosely translated: “Let’s play like a team — do it my way!” Or to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a climate alarmist.”

What the Pentagon gets out of the strange-bedfellow coalition is mission creep. As Ambassador Wisner commented, “We’re going to be at this [saving the planet from global warming] for decades . . . for another 50 to 100 years.” In other words, he envisions a national security crisis lasting 50 to 100 years, a crisis, moreover, in which threats to U.S. national security could emerge almost anywhere on the globe at almost any time. For DOD, climate change offers the prospect of a permanent, full-employment program — an evergreen rationale for new studies, programs, capabilities, and the tax dollars to pay for them.

Threat Multiplier Hype

For those who’ve been following this debate, there was nothing new presented at PSA briefing. There was the usual line of chatter about climate change being a “threat multiplier,” to wit: Global warming will increase the frequency and severity of drought, crop failure, famine, and coastal flooding, which will impoverish and displace millions, producing conflict, instability, and terrorism.

This is all very dubious. Climate change impact assessments hugely depend on assumptions about climate sensitivity, which in turn depend on assumptions about the relative strength of positive and negative climate feedback mechanisms. As Chip Knappenberger and I have discussed in previous posts, a new observational study by MIT scientists Richard Lindzen and Yong-Sang Choi finds that negative feedbacks dominate the tropical atmosphere’s response to increases in sea-surface temperature. Lindzen and Choi conclude that a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations over pre-industrial levels will produce 0.5ºC of warming — about six times less warming than the IPCC’s “best estimate.”

If climate sensitivity is as low as Lindzen and Choi infer from the data — or even if it is double their estimate — there is no climate “crisis” and no “threat multiplier.”

In addition, climate impact assessments depend on assumptions about future technology, wealth, and adaptive capability. History indicates that economic liberty, free trade, and technological innovation will continue to improve the human condition regardless of climate change.

According to the IPCC, the second half of the 20th century was “likely the warmest 50-year period in the Northern hemisphere in 1300 years” (IPCC, AR4, WGI, Chapter 9, p. 702). That’s open to debate (see Climate Change Reconsidered, Sec. 3.2), but for the sake of argument let’s grant the premise. What have been the observed effects on human welfare?

In the United States, heat-related mortality and air pollution have declined since the 1970s, while crop yields and average lifespan have increased. Global warming, where is thy sting?

Okay, you might say, that’s the United States, the world’s wealthiest country. What about developing countries — how is global warming affecting them?

According to climate alarmists, global warming makes extreme weather events more frequent and severe. So, weather-wise, is the world becoming a more dangerous place? Quite the reverse. Globally, aggregate mortality and mortality rates related to extreme weather events of all kinds plummeted 95% and 98.5%, respectively, from 1920 to 2006. It is unreasonable to assume a reversal of this well-established trend.

Deaths and death rates extreme weather

Source: Indur Goklany, Deaths and Death Rates due to Extreme Weather Events: Global and U.S. Trends, 1900–2006, The Civil Society Coalition on Climate Change, November 2007

More importantly, long-term trends for the main indicators of human well-being — per capita food supply, per capita income, and life expectancy — are all positive, as Bjorn Lomborg copiously documents.

National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg summarized the history of global warming as follows:

Earth got about 0.7 degrees Celsius warmer in the 20th century while it increased its GDP by 1,800 percent, by one estimate. How much of that 0.7 degrees can be laid at the feet of that 1,800 percent is unknowable, but let’s stipulate that all of the warming was the result of our prosperity and that this warming is indisputably bad (which is hardly obvious).

That’s still an amazing bargain. Life expectancies in the United States increased from about 47 years to about 77 years. [Globally, average life expectancy increased from about 30 years to about 67 years, according to Lomborg.] Literacy, medicine, leisure and even, in many respects, the environment improved mightily over the 20th century, at least in the prosperous West.  

What of the future? Maybe the amount of warming experienced so far isn’t so bad, but what if the rate of warming spikes upward over the next several decades?

Probably the most pessimistic assessment of the economic damages from a warming at the high end of the IPCC forecast range is the UK Government’s Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. In the Spring 2009 issue of Regulation magazine, Indur Goklany dissects the Stern Review and finds that even in its worst-case scenario, developing countries in the late 21st Century are prosperous by today’s standards. Goklany’s analysis may be summarized as follows:

  • According to the Stern Review, the 5th-95th percentile estimates of losses in welfare due to climate change under the warmest IPCC scenario (which might lead to a 4ºC increase in global temperatures from 1990 to 2085) range from 0.9% to 7.5% in 2100, with a mean loss of 2.9%. By 2200, under this extreme scenario, estimated losses range from 2.9% to 35.2%, with a mean loss of 13.8%.
  • Goklany shows that even if one assumes the Stern Review‘s 95th percentile loss estimate under the warmest scenario, developing countries’ net welfare (after accounting for climate change) would increase from $900 per capita in 1990 to $61,500 in 2100 and $86,200 in 2200 (all in 1990 U.S.$).
  • For context, Goklany notes that in 2006, GDP per capita was $19,300 for industrialized countries, $30,100 for the United States, and $1,500 for developing countries.
  • Thus, despite its best efforts to paint a gloomy picture, the Stern Review‘s own numbers tell us that, regardless of climate change, global welfare will improve dramatically over the next two hundred years, and developing country adaptive capacity will far surpass that of industrial countries today — even if the high-end IPCC warming scenario comes to pass.

The figure below illustrates Goklany’s analysis:

Goklany Stern Review Numbers

Indeed, even if we go beyond the Stern Review’s gloomiest projection, and assume that global warming will reduce global GDP 35.2% by 2100 (instead of by 2200), developing country per-capita GDP in 2100 is over $43,000 — more than twice industrial country per capita GDP in 2006.

Bang for Buck?

The PSA panelists said nothing about how much global warming their climate policies would avert. That’s hardly surprising, since as Chip Knappenberger has demonstrated, reducing U.S. emissions 83% below 2005 levels by 2050 — the Waxman-Markey emissions-reduction target — would avoid less than 0.2ºC of projected global warming by 2100. That’s an amount too small to be distinguished from the “noise” of inter-annual climate variability. Even if all industrial countries achieve the Waxman-Markey target, this would avoid only 0.4ºC of warming by 2100 — less than 10% of the projected rise in the IPCC’s “fossil intensive” (A1FI) emissions scenario. 

Cumulatively, the United States and its allies would have to spend trillions of dollars to achieve such trivial reductions in projected climate change. As a national security strategy, the PSA panelists’ policies are all buck for no bang.

When the PSA panelists call global warming a national security issue, they mainly mean that climate change will aggravate a number of pre-existing threats — e.g., drought, hunger, malaria, coastal flooding — that already cause or contribute to instability and conflict. The panelists would do well to consider Goklany’s research on “focused adaptation.” 

Goklany shows that it is much more effective — and far cheaper — to tackle directly, with proven methods, the health and environmental threats that a changing climate might exacerbate than it is to address those threats indirectly via energy-rationing schemes. For example, the Kyoto Protocol, at a cost of $165 billion per year, might reduce deaths from malaria by 0.2% in 2085. In contrast, a $3 billion annual investment in proven anti-malaria methods could reduce malaria deaths by 75%, according to the UN Millennium Development Project.

Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus project comes to much the same conclusion. Resources available to meet the world’s biggest challenges are finite. Hence, Lomborg sensibly argues, policymakers should invest in those policies that will do the most good per dollar expended.

In 2004, Lomborg convened a panel of eight distinguished economists, including three Nobel Laureates, to answer the question, “What would be the best ways of advancing global welfare, and particularly the welfare of developing countries, supposing that an additional $50 billion in resources were at governments’ disposal?” The panel commissioned “challenge papers” from 10 acknowledged authorities in different policy fields. The authors set out more than 30 policy proposals for the panel’s consideration. The panel, the authors, and two outside experts in each field examined and debated the proposals during a week-long conference. The panel then ranked the proposals in order of desirability:

 Copenhagen Consensus Ranking Global Welfare

All three climate policy proposals were deemed “bad investments.” Costs would exceed benefits and the policies would save far fewer lives per dollar invested than would competing policy proposals.

Because resources are finite, bad investments tend to crowd out good. Even if climate policies did no positive harm, they could undermine U.S. national security by (a) displacing investment in policies that more effectively  enhance human welfare, and (b) diverting money, expertise, public attention, and political will from the kinds of threats our military forces and intelligence agencies actually know how to do something about.

In fact, however, climate policies have a high potential to do positive harm to U.S. national security, as I will discuss in tomorrow’s post.


  1. Andrew  

    “In fact, however, climate policies have a high potential to do positive harm to U.S. national security, as I will discuss in tomorrow’s post.”

    I bet I can read your mind-this has to do with climate protectionism doesn’t it? Can’t wait! 🙂


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    […] Partnership for a Secure America (PSA) briefing on climate change, energy and national security. Yesterday’s post made two main points: (1) The strange-bedfellow coalition of defense hawks and eco-warriers is […]


  3. Bob R Geologist  

    I am a firm believer that weather is just another geological process. We have in the past had all kinds of weather without any help from man.
    The idea that our use of most energy sources produces excessive amounts of CO2, is endangering the overheating of the Earth. This is Green fantasy at its worst. They don’t know that some of Earth’s ancient warm spells were accompanied by as much as 20 times todays paltry amount of CO2 without causing extinctions of life on our planet. Climate is caused by many variables, some by our dynamic earth such as plate tectonics. Most are by cosmic forces, variable output by our sun, maxing out in times of abundant sun spots. Orbital irregularities causing variable distances from our sun. Wobble of our earth’s axis, like a top losing its rotation. The progress of our solar system around our Milky Way galaxy at a relative speed of 12 km /sec. A Danish astrophysist, Henrik Svensmark, has correlated the Earth’s ice ages with proximity to the spiral arms of our Galaxy. The spiral arms being regions of star formation and death of short lived stars, releasing abundant cosmic rays. The cosmic rays when penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere, generate abundant nuclei for the collection of moisture which result in heavy, low clouds. Obviously beyond man’s control.
    These clouds cut off sunlight to the earth and produce an ice age. Ice ages are responsible for most life extinctions. Life has shown the ability to survive by adaptation to warm periods as man will also. That is the area our research should be directed rather that throwing huge sums at the problem as we, in our present state of delusion, are headed.


  4. Chip Knappenberger  


    Here is another little tidbit on climate change and national security concerning the possibility of “water wars”–turns out that oil shortages are a more likely cause of war than water shortages are. See this article over at World Climate Report as to why that is the case.



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  6. rbradley  

    “National security” has a long history as an argument for government intervention in energy markets. It was an important part of the crude-oil proration debate in the 1920s and 1930s in the southwest oil states, as was oil tariffs and quotas during the same period.

    “National security” was used for seizing refineries during World War II.

    And of course it was part of the rationale for thhe Strategic Petroleum Reserve (est. 1975).

    And now this….


  7. Thomas Hughes  

    Geologist Bob,you have some connected points,but geology is not the answer geometry is. This earth has been mined all over(Need proof? provide transport and per diem) Every “Mountain here has been placed there. Grid science is one of the specialties taught to those from our school,and we understand how this planet actually operates and the connections everyone can observe and guess at the connectivity of the events observed,and yet they fail to observe very obvious events right in front of their face.
    Periodicities do cause all of our warming events and weather upticks,just as you spoke to the obvious weather events and the ice core carbons.
    Geo science just guessed at their science and everyone except the actual planet science men fell in line.
    We will have extra water and weather fo a while more(Did you just observe the months long lightning storms on Saturn?) It will abate,but when that big ball of energy comes through, we will accumulate extra water,and who can tell you how water can be formed without dreawing it from the water mass already in situ? A grid scientist can.
    Open your eyes,science men and become part of the fix of the mis-information that just destroys capital like a vacuum.
    The IPCC boys are chartlatans getting free vacations,and yoiu all bow to their absurd process as if they were gods,and the government does not have our help because we were shoved out to create the messes everywhere.
    The mis-information is purposeful…………….


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  9. Marlo Lewis  

    Thanks, Chip, for directing me to the Nature article on “water wars” — a topic that figures so prominently in discussions of climate change as a “threat multiplier.” I may update my post after studying that article and your excellent commentary on World Climate Report.


  10. Brian Hall  

    Here’s another economic model to check out: Nordhaus’ 100-yr “cost-benefit” analysis. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21494

    Stern’s and Gore’s solutions have the very worst payoff.

    The best comes from a hypothetical “low-cost fallback” clean cheap energy source. Here it is: focusfusion.org . Power at ¼¢/kwh for everyone.


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