Is Climate Change a Non-State Actor/Threat? And Where Do We Go From Here?

In its recent directive on climate change, the top leadership of the Department of Defense made it clear that preparing for the effects of global warming would cut across almost all of its work: procurement, training, protecting physical infrastructure, and the operations and missions of its combatant commands. This directive is the end-result of an effort by the institutions of U.S. foreign policy making to grapple with a critical emerging threat, pulling together the first strands of a strategy. The focus of the various agencies of the U.S. national security bureaucracy on concerns about the impacts of climate change on society (and specifically how those may increase conflict risk globally) date back to the early 1990s, but its public profile has been raised significantly in the past ten years. The most recent iterations of the National Security Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and the Worldwide Threat Assessment from the Director of National Intelligence also describe climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have spoken about the dire challenge climate change presents to international peace and security.

Such statements raise the question as to how to classify climate change as a threat, and what the U.S. government should do to address it. The Pentagon has spoken of climate change previously as contributing to state failure, increasing "poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—[factors] that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries." The prospect of climate change as a national security threat does not fit into neat categories of analysis. It is certainly not a conventional threat in the way the armed forces of a peer competitor would be, even though climate change impacts may change the calculus that competitor uses to decide to use force to achieve its strategic objectives. It is not quite clear it fits the definition of a non-state actor. Climate change, after all, is not an actor at all; it has no agents acting on its behalf, no ideology or collection of grievances for which it acts. It is rather better to think of it as a discontinuity in the expectations of how all actors in the international system have for their physical environment. If that discontinuity is severe enough, it can have a negative impact a whole host of factors that contribute to state stability: agricultural production and food security, access to clean water (for human consumption as well as agriculture), and alter patterns of migration.

These effects are amplified by the fact that climate change is pervasive, but acts with a particularly high impact in places that are less equipped to deal with them. There is very little in human economic activity that is not implicated: land use (including agriculture); transportation; and the electricity sector. While what we consider the  developed states of the Western world are principally responsible for historical emissions growth, many developing states have spent the past two decades catching up in the name of rapid economic growth and poverty alleviation. Unfortunately, climate change impacts are not distributed based on the relative responsibility of the countries that caused the problem. In fact, the preponderance of research in the field suggests that the worst effects will be felt by states with the least responsibility for climate change. A recent study from Scientific Reports finds a significant relationship between a country’s low emissions profile and its high vulnerability to climate change effects: sea-level rise, drought, and disaster risk. The issue for U.S. foreign policy is how to deal with a problem primarily caused by states whose effects follow no defined path and are far from the continental United States.

Climate change is thus a threat with literally no discernible borders and has the potential to disrupt nearly every sector of the global economy. What is particularly vexing about it is that the cause and effects of climate change are nonlinear. While scientists know a great deal about how harmful greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are, there are several issues that are not easy to predict with current observation and modeling. Positive feedback loops, like how warming temperatures may induce further concentration of greenhouse gases, or that melting permafrost may lead to the sudden loss of an important carbon sink, are but two examples of things that may drastically alter the timeline of climate change impacts, abruptly raising the likelihood of outcomes that were hitherto more likely to happen several decades from now.

Such disruptions are already occurring, with consequences for present U.S. foreign policy priorities. Consider one prominent example: Lake Chad, an important source of irrigation water to three African countries (Niger, Cameroon and Chad) has decreased to about a twentieth of its size thanks to what the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) attributes to a combination of climate effects and increasing human use. While many bodies of water are experiencing similar effects, few intersect quite so directly with the desire of the United States to reduce the reach of Islamist extremist groups. The region is an active area of operations for Boko Haram. Nigeria, for one, does not believe these to factors to be separate, citing water stress as a contributing factor to regional insecurity, something with which Western experts have concurred. It is likely true, of course, that Boko Haram’s militancy would be present even if Lake Chad were at full capacity. However, to the extent that it is a factor, any broad U.S. counterterrorism strategy must address that profound development challenges in the region, which appear to be exacerbated by climate change.

The remnants of Lake Chad. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The challenge is that such a strategy may rely on a set of experiences that have become politically untenable in light of U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we want to have a cohesive approach to helping allied and partner nations deal with climate change impacts, then we need to figure out how to build accountable institutions that can deliver results, including in conflict conditions. That requires adopting a state-building approach that somehow learns the lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq, overcomes the resource constraints–both financially and as a matter of human capital–that have arisen in large part from the legacies of those interventions, and incorporate a host of environmental considerations that have not figured highly in the great debates of American foreign policy until quite recently. Given recent experience, that will be a tall order; however, if the U.S. wishes to be a leader on international climate issues, especially as those issues contribute to global security concerns, it is a necessary investment.

One need only be conversant in the work of the SIGIR or SIGAR (the Special Inspector Generals for Iraq Reconstruction and Afghan Reconstruction, respectively) to know what an uphill climb this is. Stuart Bowen, Jr., who was, until 2013, the SIGIR, reflected on his experiences, saying that the process for implementing and overseeing stabilization programs was flawed. The problem, in Bowen’s eyes, was not exclusively that these projects were undertaken in a combat zone. Rather, the issue was much more fundamental: that, despite years of experience in nation-building efforts in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo (some successful; others far from it), none of the principal agencies involved–State, USAID, or Defense–had the “core competencies” to execute the missions with which they were charged. Among the problems were a lack of interagency cooperation, coordination between government and nongovernmental efforts, and lack of accountability for results. It is not at all clear that lessons from these experiences have been internalized within the foreign policy bureaucracy, especially in light of budgetary constraints and a counterterrorism strategy that focuses the preponderance of its efforts on targeted assassination of certain groups and their personnel. A 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service lays out some of the well-known institutional and resource obstacles to robust analysis of aid effectiveness, and some of remedies still waiting full deliberation by Congress.

A doctrine of preparedness and sound risk management practice mean that our foreign policy institutions must prepare for a wide spectrum of conflict-related risks arising from climate change. Some of these risks are present now; others will appear in the future, much more frequently and severely. The State Department has begun with an important first step: a task force assigned the responsibility of assessing how the nation’s diplomats and development professionals should approach this threat. With respect to assessments of aid effectiveness, the president’s most recent budget request calls for an increase in USAID funding for its Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL) Bureau. Making that bureau effective will go a long way to building the necessary human capital to put U.S. government efforts on the right track. The challenge will be to match that approach with the necessary resources, in expenditures and personnel, to carry it out. The coming generation will determine whether we have learned the right lessons from our past nation-building efforts and equipped ourselves to handle the coming storm.

Neil Bhatiya is the Climate and Diplomacy Fellow for the Center on Climate and Security and a Fellow at The Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @NeilBhatiya.

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