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Pentagon faces a battle on climate change
By John Podesta and Peter Ogden
Published: February 13 2008 18:47 | Last updated: February 13 2008 18:47
In the run-up to the United Nations climate change conference in Bali, businesspeople implored political leaders to take bold steps to combat global warming. They insisted that their ability to undertake effective long-term planning was undermined by uncertainty about the future cost of carbon emissions. Yet their calls for action were ignored.
Perhaps the outcome would have been different if the world’s single largest organisation – the Pentagon – had joined the chorus. After all, it also needs to know what kind of environment to prepare for to allocate its vast resources efficiently. Planning for future contingencies is a long-term process, as force structure and weapons systems have to be co-ordinated at least a decade in advance.
The stakes are high. The consequence of the Pentagon’s failure to prepare could result not just in lost dollars but also in lost lives.
There are five key areas in which effective military planning can be undermined by uncertainty over when and how the major carbon-emitting countries combat climate change.
First, climate change poses a threat to fragile states that lack the capacity to adapt to environmental shifts. The Pentagon needs to know if the military will be called upon to operate more often in countries that have collapsed or are on the brink of doing so. The risk of a regional conflagration sparked by global warming is particularly severe in east Africa and south Asia. How urgently should the Pentagon begin planning for such contingencies?
Second, the US military needs to know how significantly to expand its capacity to act as a first responder in times of natural disaster. Climate change will increase the frequency of large-scale disasters over the next three decades. But the scope of this threat will vary depending on what action is taken to minimise emissions. Although some of the emergencies created or exacerbated by climate change may be managed by the UN, the US military has an unrivalled capacity to act as a first responder in these situations.
Recall the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck a little more than three years ago: only the US could or would so rapidly have deployed and sustained the 15,000 troops, two dozen ships and 100 aircraft needed for the mission. But if the US military anticipates being called upon more often to respond to such disasters then it needs clarity about how soon it should invest more resources into planning such missions.
Third, the US military will have to conduct traditional missions in increasingly adverse weather conditions. Planners must decide how soon to invest in equipment that works better in storms, floods and other hostile climates.
Fourth, rising sea levels and other climatic factors could threaten the viability of bases on islands or low-lying coastal areas. The US military must know how urgently it needs to plan to protect or, in extreme circumstances, compensate for the loss of bases in strategic areas. The Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean, which serves as a major hub for US and British missions in the Middle East and is vital to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, may be at risk from climate change.
Moreover, expanding existing bases or creating new ones is often expensive and politically challenging. If the Pentagon had a clear sense of what steps were going to be taken to combat global warming, it might choose to invest more in developing its own offshore “sea basing” platforms that do not require host-country consent.
Fifth, the roles of the army and National Guard will need to evolve according to the degree of global warming. National Guard troops are responsible for responding when necessary to domestic natural disasters, but this may not be viable if their deployment overseas leaves the US short of troops and equipment at a time when extreme weather occurs more often at home. The Pentagon might need to begin helping to create a state-level home guard to take over domestic disaster duties from the National Guard.
While these challenges may seem far off, they are not. It is not too soon to begin factoring them into US security calculations. President George W. Bush knows today whether the US will build the national and international frameworks needed to forge a low-carbon future. The business, scientific and political community has failed to coax that information from him. Perhaps if the Pentagon asks, he will answer.
John Podesta is president of the Center for American Progress and was White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001. Peter Ogden is senior national security analyst at the centre.
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008