If you're on the East Coast of the United States and hunkering down while Hurricane Sandy hits, you might devote some time to studying the heated (pun intended) exchanges that President Obama and Governor Romney had on the issue of climate change during the presidential debates. It won't take you long, because the two candidates ignored the issue completely.
It is of course possible that Sandy has nothing to do with climate change. Hurricanes have been hitting the East Coast for centuries, so this one is really nothing new, right? Except that one implication of rising global temperatures is that tropical storms will be larger and more destructive, and a storm the size of Sandy is more than a little unusual (indeed, it is reported to be the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded). Its arrival is thus entirely consistent with the warnings that atmospheric scientists have been giving for some time.
A storm like this inevitably brings loss of life and vast destruction. My guess is that the damage from this storm will far exceed all the death and destruction that terrorists have caused in this country since 9/11. Yet we remain obsessed with the threat of Al Qaeda & Co. and we use it to justify all sorts of dubious national security policies, while taking natural disasters that are probably more serious in stride. Consider that the 2013 budget request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is $13 billion, but the Department of Homeland Security will get roughly $50 billion (or more than three times the FEMA total).
American democracy has many virtues, but careful cost-benefit analysis doesn't appear to be one of them. In any case, no matter where you are, hope you stay dry and safe and the power doesn't go out. And if your internet connection is still up, here's some inspiring music....
It's summer, and a searing drought is shriveling corn fields in the Midwest. Meanwhile torrential rains (the worst in 60 years) have killed several dozen people in Beijing. Sea ice continues to shrink in the arctic -- the decline in June was the largest in the satellite record -- creating new sea areas for the Coast Guard to patrol. Welcome to climate change 2012.
But how serious is the problem? How worried should you be? I don't know, because I'm neither an atmospheric physicist, environmental economist, nor specialist in global institutions designed to address collective goods (or negative externalities). Nonetheless, I do try to stay informed on this issue, and I occasionally use the case of climate change to illustrate certain features of international politics to my students. And what makes it frustrating for a layperson like me is the range of opinion one can find even among well-informed journalists.
Case in point: two prominent articles on this topic appeared this past week, reaching sharply contrasting conclusions. The first article, by science writer/environmental journalist Bill McKibben, presents a deeply worrisome picture of the planet's future. According to McKibben, it's all in the math. There is now a strong scientific consensus that human beings can only put another 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere without causing average atmospheric temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius. (Two degrees was the agreed-upon target figure at the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen, though many climate scientists think even that level of increase would be very harmful.)
Unfortunately, a recent inventory of current oil and gas reserves showed that they contain enough carbon to release roughly 2,795 gigatons of CO2, if it is all brought to the surface and burned. That's about five times the upper limit identified above. The problem, of course, is that the companies that own these reserves will want to pump the oil and gas out and sell it -- that's the business they're in -- even though spewing that much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would be disastrous. In the absence of effective government action to discourage consumption (i.e., by taxing carbon to raise the price and diminish consumption) we're in deep trouble.
The second article, from yesterday's New York Times, offers a cheerier view. In the words of business reporter David Leonhardt, "behind the scenes. . .a somewhat different story is starting to emerge -- one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet." He describes how investments in clean energy are reducing the price of solar and wind power and how shifts from coal to natural gas (which is less carbon-intensive) for electricity generation have accelerated. And he dangles that hope that government-sponsored R and D will eventually create "disruptive technologies" that "can power the economy without heating the planet."
To be sure, these two articles aren't totally at odds. Leonhardt acknowledges that we have a long way to go, and that many experts believe that you need a combination of regulation to raise the price of carbon along with further reductions in the cost of alternative energy sources. Similarly, McKibben's account accepts that there is probably still time for effective political action to address this situation (Indeed, his whole article is clearly intended as a clarion call for greater activism).
As is so often the case, the issue boils down to politics. And that's why I'm pessimistic, because I can't think of any issue where the barriers to effective political action are so great. First of all, you have an array of special interests with little or no interest in allowing the government to interfere with their ability to make money in the short-term (see under: Koch Brothers). Second, you have a political system in the United States (the world's second largest greenhouse gas producer) that is unusually open to lobbying and other forms of political interference. Third, climate change is a classic example of an intergenerational equity problem: it's hard to get people to make sacrifices today (i.e., in the form of higher energy prices, less comfortable houses and offices, more expensive travel, etc.) for the sake of people who haven't even been conceived yet. That same principle applies to politicians too: Why should they jeopardize their re-election prospects for the sake of voters who won't be around until they are long gone? Fourth, there's also a thorny equity issue between advanced industrial countries like the United States (whose economies were developed before anyone knew about climate change) and emerging economies like China or India that don't want to slow their economic growth by reducing greenhouse gas emissions today. Even if there is a rapidly growing consensus on the need to do something soon, everybody wants somebody else pay most of the price or bear most of the burdens.
For all these reasons, the well-publicized effort to devise an effective global solution to the problem of human-induced climate change has largely failed thus far. It's possible that some new disruptive technology will swoop in and solve the problem for us, or maybe some of the intriguing proposals for "geo-engineering" the planet may prove workable and effective.
Maybe, but such hopes remind me of this old cartoon. If we're going to need a miracle (whether political or technological) we're going to have to be more explicit about what happens in step two.
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Strategy is all about setting priorities: Deciding which problems merit the most attention and allocating the right level of resources to each challenge. It is about not letting the urgent overwhelm the important, and not getting blown off course by random events or unexpected surprises. Whether we are talking about a country's overall policy menu, a corporate business plan, or a military engagement, success requires first identifying what really matters.
So when I read James Hansen's op-ed about climate change yesterday, my first thought was: "Boy, do we have our priorities screwed up." Here in America, we spend endless hours arguing and debating trivialities, like who is going to get to run Afghanistan (a country whose entire GDP is about one-third the size of the municipal budget for New York City). We turn issues of personal freedom and preference (like marrying whomever you want) into Grand Moral Challenges. We kvetch about a single blind dissident in China, and work ourselves into a lather over not-very-powerful countries like Iran that pose no serious threat to any vital U.S. interests. Like a paranoid nation of sheep, we accept an increasingly onerous set of security restrictions in a futile attempt to drive the probability of a terrorist attack on an airliner down to absolute zero, no matter what the cost or the inconvenience. (And some people now think the current level of TSA madness isn't enough!)
Meanwhile , we merrily go about finding new sources of hydrocarbon-based energy -- like Canada's tar sands -- and get excited about the possibility that "fracking" will free us from dependence on "foreign oil" and allow us to keep using energy at our current profligate levels. Instead of orchestrating a gradual increase in the cost of hydrocarbon-based fuels -- to discourage consumption -- politicians search instead for ways to keep the cost low (and our SUVs running).
If Hansen is right -- and his track record is pretty good -- this behavior is utterly myopic. I'm not saying that we shouldn't devote some attention to other issues -- and if you're been reading this blog, you know that I'm as guilty as everyone else of doing just that -- but I wonder how much of Barack Obama's time and attention has been spent thinking about what his administration could do to advance a sensible agenda of long-term environmental protection, as opposed to the time he's spent on things that basically won't matter a damn in a few years. Remember that big climate-change summit back in 2009? Haven't heard much about that agenda lately, have you?
When historians of the 22nd century look back on our era, I suspect we'll take a lot of heat (sorry for the pun) both for what we did, but also for what we failed to do. Especially if a lot of places that are dry land today are under water. The only good news: China and its various Southeast Asian neighbors won't be squabbling over all those bits of rock in the South China Sea that are barely above sea level now.
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The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options).
The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today's New York Times also identifies what could be an even more significant long-term effect of this event: the curtailing of plans to address global warming through sharply increased reliance on nuclear power.
The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries -- including the United States -- would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.
The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely. At a minimum, it will make it much harder to get approval for new power plants -- which already face classic NIMBY objections -- which will drive up the cost and make a significant expansion of the nuclear industry politically infeasible in many countries, especially the United States.
This reaction doesn't make a lot of sense because the costs and risks of nuclear energy need to be rigorously compared against the costs and risks of other energy sources and the long-term costs and risks of global warming itself. But that's not the way that the human mind and the democratic process often work. We tend to worry more about rare but vivid events -- like an accident at a nuclear plant -- and we downplay even greater risks that seem like they are part of the normal course of daily life. Thus, people worry more about terrorist attacks than they do about highway accidents or falling in a bathtub, even though they are far more likely to be hurt by the latter than the former.
So, in addition to the thousands of lives lost, the billions of dollars of property damage, and the knock-on economic consequences of the Japanese disaster, we need to add the likely prospect of more damage from climate change down the road. It's possible that clearer heads will prevail and guide either more stringent conservation measures or the sensible expansion of nuclear power (along with other energy alternatives), but I wouldn't bet on it.
Earlier this summer I mentioned that I was reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and I promised to sum up the insights that I had gleaned from it. The book is well-worth reading -- if not quite on a par with his earlier Guns, Germs, and Steel -- and you'll learn an enormous amount about a diverse set of past societies and the range of scientific knowledge (geology, botany, forensic archaeology, etc.) that is enabling us to understand why they prospered and/or declined.
The core of the book is a series of detailed case studies of societies that collapsed and disappeared because they were unable to adapt to demanding and/or deteriorating environmental, economic, or political conditions. He examines the fate of the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi of the Pacific Southwest, the Norse colonies in Western Greenland (among others), and contrasts them with other societies (e.g., the New Guinea highlanders) who managed to develop enduring modes of life in demanding circumstances. He also considers modern phenomenon such as the Rwandan genocide and China and Australia's environmental problems in light of these earlier examples.
I read the book because I am working on a project exploring why states (and groups and individuals) often find it difficult to "cut their losses" and abandon policies that are clearly not working. This topic is a subset of the larger (and to me, endlessly fascinating) question of why smart and well-educated people can nonetheless make disastrous (and with hindsight, obviously boneheaded) decisions. Diamond's work is also potentially relevant to the perennial debate on American decline: Is it occurring, is it inevitable, and how should we respond?
So what lessons does Diamond draw from his case studies, and what insights might we glean for the conduct of foreign policy? Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I finished the book.
First, he argues that sometimes societies fail to anticipate an emerging problem because they lack adequate knowledge or prior experience with the phenomenon at hand. Primitive societies may not have recognized the danger of soil depletion, for example, because they lacked an adequate understanding of basic soil chemistry. A society may also fail to spot trouble if the main problem it is facing recurs only infrequently, because the knowledge of how to detect or deal with the problem may have been forgotten. As he emphasizes, this is especially problematic for primitive societies that lack written records, but historical amnesia can also occur even in highly literate societies like our own.
By analogy, one could argue that some recent failures in U.S. foreign policy were of this sort. Hardly anybody anticipated that U.S. support for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan would eventually lead to the formation of virulent anti-American terrorist groups, in part because the U.S. leaders didn't know very much about that part of the world and because public discourse about U.S. policy in the Middle East is filled with gaping holes. Similarly, the people who led us into Iraq in 2003 were remarkably ignorant about the history and basic character of Iraqi society (as well as the actual nature of Saddam's regime). To make matters worse, the U.S. military had forgotten many of the lessons of Vietnam and had to try to relearn them all over again, with only partial success.
Second, societies may fail to detect a growing problem if their leaders are too far removed from the source of the trouble. Diamond refers to this as the problem of "distant managers," and it may explain why U.S. policymakers often make decisions that seem foolish in hindsight. As I've noted here before, one problem facing U.S. foreign policymakers is the sheer number and scope of the problems they are trying to address, which inevitably forces them to rely on reports from distant subordinates and to address issues that they cannot be expected to understand very well. Barack Obama doesn't get to spend the next few years learning Pashto and immersing himself in the details of Afghan history and culture; instead, he has to make decisions based on what he is being told by people on the ground (who may or may not know more than he does). Unfortunately, the latter have obvious reasons to tell an upbeat story, if only to make their own efforts look good. If things are going badly, therefore, the people at the top back in Washington may be the last to know.
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What happened in Copenhagen? The answer is: not much. Facing a very real possibility of complete failure -- a two-year buildup to a cacophonous conference that ended in de facto deadlock -- a select group of major powers cobbled together a non-binding “agreement” to undertake various purely voluntary actions, aimed at an arbitrary target for limiting future atmospheric warming. As Greenpeace noted on its Twitter page: “2 years planning, 2 weeks negotiating = worse than half-assed deal in the last 2 hours. Climate change you can believe in.” And I assume you didn’t missed the symbolism of Obama leaving the conference a day early so he could get back to Washington before it snowed.
Environmental issues aren’t my main thing, you understand, but I can’t resist the urge to offer a few comments.
First, you shouldn’t be surprised by this outcome, especially if you’ve been reading this blog. As the Economist noted a week or so ago, “Climate change is the hardest political problem the world has ever had to deal with.” In addition to the scientific uncertainties (not about the fact of climate change, but about the impact of different policy responses), dealing with man-made climate change is a classic collective action problem. All countries would like to avoid the consequences of atmospheric warming, but they would also like someone else to pay the costs of addressing it. Furthermore, the worst negative consequences won’t be evenly distributed and won’t occur for several decades, which means that today’s leaders would have to impose costs on their citizens now in order to leave future generations better off. That’s do-able, but hardly a tempting prospect for most politicians. In addition, there is still no consensus on the best way to proceed: some states favor “cap and trade” systems while other prefer a straightforward “carbon tax.” Finally, the main polluters are in very different economic circumstances; the developed world created the problem but now wants to get rising powers like China and India to undertake potentially costly measures that could slow their own growth. Needless to say, that's not very attractive to Beijing or New Delhi. Toss in the reality that any agreement would be unwieldy, expensive, and rife with verification problems, and you have an issue that makes reforming health care here in the United States look absurdly simple by comparison.
Second, the outcome in Copenhagen does lend support for FP chief Moises Naim’s concept of “minilateralism.” If you can’t get 192 states to agree on a global agreement (and it sure looks like you can’t), then focus on getting the biggest economies (who are the biggest source of the problem and the states with the resources to help the others), and see if you can get some sort of agreement among them. Thus, an optimist could see the face-saving “deal” that emerged at the very end of the conference as the building block for a new initiative that would eschew a grand global bargain in favor of a more focused deal among the major powers.
Third, this episode offers another revealing glimpse at Obama’s diplomatic style; indeed, his entire approach to politics. A master of soaring rhetorical style, he sets ambitious goals and imposes short deadlines (remember when he said he wanted to get a two-state solution in his first term?). When those lofty goals (inevitably) turn out to be unreachable, he grabs what’s available (a flawed health care deal, more photo-op "diplomacy" in the Middle East, a compromise “surge” in Afghanistan, etc.), and talks about the need to keep “moving forward.”
The “glass half full” interpretation is that this approach avoids complete deadlock and helps Obama avoid the appearance (and maybe the reality) of complete and obvious failure. And in some cases—most notably health care—you end up with a reform that is better than having done nothing, even if it is far less than the American people deserve. Given the complexity of some issues -- such as climate change -- and the barriers to bold action that are central to America’s checks-and-balances, multiple veto-point system of government, this may be the best he/we can do.
But there’s a “half-empty” version of this story too. By setting too many lofty goals, and showing a too-ready willingness to cut deals in order to save face, Obama is teaching his opponents that he’s never going to walk away and that they can always get a better deal if they stonewall him and drag things out as long as they can. That’s a problem no matter who is doing it: the GOP, China, the Karzai government, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Iran. What makes it worse is Obama’s penchant for thrusting himself into the middle of negotiations at the wrong time, as he did over the City of Chicago’s Olympics bid and as he appears to have done in Copenhagen as well. (If climate change is really that important he should have been there longer; if it was clear that no deal was going to happen, maybe he shouldn’t have gone at all).
But what really worries me is that Obama is in fact making the best of a set of bad options, and that it still won’t be nearly good enough.
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I've been a big fan of Jared Diamond's work ever since Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I enjoyed his op-ed yesterday describing how companies like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Chevron are "going green." But I thought the real lesson of the article got buried in his glowing depiction of these supposedly enlightened companies. If you read his account carefully, it's clear that these big businesses didn't suddenly acquire an altruistic concern for the good of the planet; they are simply responding to clear market incentives, reinforced in some cases by intelligent regulation. Walmart is working to reduce its energy expenditures because energy (e.g., fuel for delivery trucks) is expensive; Coca-Cola is worried about water supplies because Coke is mostly made of water and its costs will increase as water becomes scarcer; and Chevron now does more to prevent environmental damage because governments now require it to pay clean-up costs and that's more expensive than preventing oil spills and other environmental mishaps in the first place.
The moral is that we aren't going to get a greener planet if we don't make the cost of environment-damaging activities (like burning fossil fuels or wasting water) substantially more expensive, and if we don't make it harder for those who do the most damage to off-load the costs on someone else. Everyone watching the climate change talks in Copenhagen should keep this lesson firmly in mind: A truly effective solution isn't going to be cost-free, especially in the short-term.
Donald Bowers/Getty Images for The Coca Cola Company
If I were President Obama (now there's a scary thought!), I'd ask some smart people on my foreign policy team to start thinking hard about "Plan B." What's Plan B? It's the strategy that he's going to need when it becomes clear that his initial foreign policy initiatives didn't work. Obama's election and speechifying has done a lot to repair America's image around the world -- at least in the short term -- in part because that image had nowhere to go but up. But as just about everyone commented when he got the Nobel Peace Prize last week, his foreign policy record to date is long on promises but short on tangible achievements. Indeed, odds are that the first term will end without his achieving any of his major foreign policy goals.
To be more specific, I'd bet that all of the following statements are true in 2012.
1. There won't be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel will still be occupying the West Bank and controlling the Gaza Strip. More and more people are going to conclude that "two states for two peoples" is no longer possible, and that great Cairo speech will increasingly look like hollow rhetoric.
2. The United States will still have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. Victory will not be within sight.
3. Substantial U.S. personnel will remain in Iraq (relabeled as "training missions"), and the political situation will remain fragile at best.
4. The clerical regime in Iran will still be in power, will still be enriching nuclear material, will still insist on its right to control the full nuclear fuel cycle, and will still be deeply suspicious of the United States. Iran won't have an actual nuclear weapon by then, but it will be closer to being able to make one if it wishes.
5. There won't be a new climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
6. Little progress will have been made toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia may complete a new strategic arms agreement by then, but both states will still have thousands of nuclear warheads in their stockpiles. None of the nine current nuclear weapons states will have disarmed, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still unratified three years from now.
Other achievements that we won't see include the balancing of the federal budget, a major revamping of global financial architecture, reform of the U.N. Security Council, a significant increase in the size of the State Department or the foreign aid budget, or the completion of new trade round. I'm not even sure we will have closed Gitmo or ended "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by then.
Assuming he wins re-election, therefore, President Obama is going to be looking at a foreign policy "to do" list with remarkably few boxes checked off. And somebody ought to start thinking about this possibility now, because wise statecraft ought to anticipate the circumstances one is going to face a few years hence, instead of focusing solely on what's in the in-box today.
So what's Plan B? I'm still wrestling with that issue myself, but here's a quick sketch of some of the fundamental ideas. Plan B begins by recognizing that the United States remains the most secure great power in modern history and that most of damage we have suffered recently has come from scaring ourselves into foolish foreign adventures. It means rejecting the belief -- common to both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists -- that virtually every global problem requires an American solution and "American leadership." It acknowledges that social engineering in complex traditional societies is something we don't know how to do and probably can't learn, but it takes comfort from the fact that it is also a task that we don't have to do. It accepts that there are a few bad guys out there that do need to be confronted, captured, and sometimes killed, but understands that the more force we use and the heavier our footprint is, the more resistance we will ultimately face. And yes, Plan B understands that sometimes bad things will happen to Americans, and there is nothing we can do to completely eliminate all foreign dangers. Get used to it.
Plan B means playing "hard to get" more often, so that other states don't take us for granted and so that they bear a greater share of common burdens. It means exploiting balances of power and playing divide-and-conquer, instead of trying to impose a preponderance of U.S. power on every corner of the globe. It prizes the individual freedoms that are the core of American democracy -- freedoms that are threatened by a steady diet of foreign wars -- and it recognizes that other societies will have to find their own way toward more pluralist and participatory forms of government, and at their own pace. It seeks to maintain armed forces that are second to none but eschews squandering lives or money on peripheral wars that are neither vital nor winnable. It rejects "special relationships" with any other state, if by that one means relationships where we support other states even when they do foolish things that are not in our interest (or theirs).
And Plan B proceeds from the belief that other states will be more likely to follow America's lead if they look at us and like what they see. America used to dazzle the world by offering up a vision of opportunity, equality, energy and competence that was unimaginable elsewhere. The danger now is that America is increasingly seen as a land of crumbling infrastructure, mountainous debt, uninsured millions, fraying public institutions, and xenophobic media buffoons. Over the longer term, getting our house in order back home will to a lot more to shore up our global position than conducting endless foot patrols through the Afghan countryside.
Postscript: Some smart observers -- such as Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic -- have a more favorable view of Obama's performance to date. They discern a trademark style in Obama's cautious and reflective approach to most policy issues: he sets forth general goals, waits to see how others react, gauges the limits of the possible, and then decides on a course of action. There's probably something to this view, and surely the patient examination of alternative policy options makes more sense than relying on one's "gut instincts" and then stubbornly refusing to admit the possibility of error.
Whether one relies on calm deliberation or a president's entrails, however, the proof of any approach to policymaking is its ability to deliver tangible results. And here the jury is still out. My concern is that Obama has yet to use American power -- in either its hard and soft forms -- in ways designed to shape the calculations and actions of both allies and adversaries. Where Bush erroneously believed that the United States could simply dictate to the rest of the world, thus far Obama seems unwilling to wield American power against stubborn opponents or withhold U.S. support from recalcitrant allies. His speeches are a valuable tool, but ultimately others need to know that there is resolve and purpose and tangible actions behind them. Sometimes foreign policy is like community organizing -- i.e., you're trying to herd diverse groups to work together for a common goal and your task is to overcome suspicions so that the common ground can be seized. But at other times it's more like a gang war. And when it's the latter, you have to take names, draw lines, and use the power at one's disposal to get the outcomes you want.
Think about it this way: how many foreign leaders are now grateful because the United States has backed them and their prospects are improving, and how many governments are now worried because the United States is successfully using its power to undermine or thwart them and force them to rethink their positions?
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The British statesman Lord Salisbury famously warned that "if you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe."
I was reminded of Salisbury's comment when I read the Times' story on a recent study of the national security implications of climate change. So I went online and read the actual report (by CNA Corporation, a DoD-funded think tank). It concludes that "climate change poses a serious threat to America's national security," describes it as a "threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world," and recommends integrating the national security consequences of climate change into existing defense and national security strategies (along with a number of other measures).
This is a bit of a "dog bites man" story, of course: when was the last time a DoD study concluded that some new global development was leaving us more secure? But as Salisbury cautioned, we need to take such warnings with a "very large admixture of insipid common sense."
If the purpose of the study is to highlight the need to take climate change seriously and to rally public support for doing something about it, then OK. The Times quotes retired general Anthony Zinni in this fashion, where he warns that we will either spend the money now to try to slow or halt climate change, or we will spend the money (and lives) later to deal with the consequences. This is a familiar political tactic: when you want to do something expensive, try to convince people that it is a critical national security imperative. That's one of the ways we got the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, (aka the Interstate Highway System) back in the 1950s: it was justified as a critical element in our national defense infrastructure.
Similarly, there's no question that climate change could affect certain defense operations. For example, rising sea levels could affect access to overseas bases like Diego Garcia, and affect operations at key U.S. naval bases here at home. So there's clearly good reason for DOD to think about these issues and start planning ahead.
But as Matt Yglesias noted yesterday, the CNA study reads like an exercise in threat-inflation (he called it "hubristic imperialism"). 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? And if the United States starts devoting a lot of time and attention to figuring out how to mitigate such developments, won't that reduce India's incentive to reach a meaningful climate change agreement?
Climate change might also foster instability in various "volatile areas," but it does not immediately follow from that observation that U.S. interests will necessarily be affected in any significant way. Overall, the CNA study illustrates what might be called the Albright Doctrine: "Because we are the indispensable power, every global problem has to have an American solution."
But the more closely you look at the report, the clearer it is that the actual national security implications of climate change are modest, at least for the United States. The likely demands on U.S. military forces will be for humanitarian relief, not for the protection of vital U.S. interests. I have no problem with humanitarian relief, by the way, but let's call it what it is -- a form of global philanthropy -- and not try to sell it as a defense of the American people.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.