Beyond the Cold War Redefining Security

Although traditionally considered to be primarily a domestic policy concern, discussion of the environment and climate change as national security and foreign policy matters trickled through the 1970s and early 1980s. George Kennan wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1970 of the global scale of such issues and suggested the need for an independent international institution to track and coordinate information on what nations, states, and communities did to impact the environment.3 In 1974 General Maxwell Taylor suggested creating "an expanded National Security Council charged with dealing with all forms of security threats, military and nonmilitary, and having access to all elements of government and to all relevant resources capable of contributing to this broad task." Taylor criticized the NSC for generally ignoring the environment and many other issues.4 The environmentalist Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute wrote in a seminal 1977 paper, "Redefining National Security," that "threats to security may now arise less from the relationship of nation to nation and more from the relationship of man to nature. Dwindling reserves of oil and deterioration of the Earth's biological systems now threaten the security of nations everywhere."5 In the late 1980s Egypt's Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned that the next war in the Middle East would be over water.

Although the concept of conflict over natural resources has long been a strong theme in the public imagination, especially concerning water and oil, conflict related to climate change has long remained a relatively obscure topic. This changed as the threat of the cold war waned, and as carbon loading from a host of developed and developing states increased dramatically in the late 1980s and into the new century.

The Canadian government held the first major international conference focused on climate change, "The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security," in Toronto in the early summer of 1988. At that conference, Norway's prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, declared, "We are now realizing that we may be on the threshold of changes to our climate, changes which are so extensive and immediate that they will profoundly affect the life of the human race." Scientists offered projections of possible temperature and sea level increases, and politicians from more than forty countries outlined security, economic, and political consequences of such changes in nature. Representatives of the host nation's government recommended that NATO and other economic and military organizations should be studied as models for international cooperation to combat climate change. However, many participants retained a policy focus of only voluntary solutions.6

That year, the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; its purpose was to be an independent entity to collect and analyze climate information from around the world, identify weaknesses and gaps in climate and environmental knowledge, and identify what scientific evidence government leaders required to make sound policy. The international community recognized the need for undeniable science rooted in global observations if decisionmakers were to take the threat of global warming seriously and initiate appropriate action.

In the summer of 1988, near-record temperatures and severe drought helped to spark political and popular interest in the United States as well as Canada. James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, testified before the Senate that there was a 99 percent certainty that the climate was indeed changing as a result of human contributions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. "It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong," he declared, warning, "Global warming ... is already happening now."7

Hansen's testimony is regarded as a major catalyst for getting Washington to think about climate change. However, it also triggered vociferous reaction from global warming skeptics of all stripes, from those who simply thought there was not yet enough data on the dynamics of clouds or the interactions between atmosphere and oceans to draw firm conclusions, to those who objected to the very concept that human activity could affect global climate patterns. For example, the climatologist Patrick Michaels responded to the uptick in warnings about climate change in a January 1989 Washington Post op-ed. "Of the hundred-odd scientists in the world actively involved in the study of long-term climate data, only one—James Hansen of NASA—has stated publicly that there is a 'high degree of cause and effect'between current temperatures and human alteration of the atmosphere," he wrote.8 Hansen was forced to defend himself, responding in the Post the following month, "The evidence for an increasing greenhouse effect is now sufficiently strong that it would have been irresponsible if I had not attempted to alert political leaders."9

The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental policy research center, was a leading force in pushing the dialogue about the potential global implications of climate change. Its 1988 State of the World report stated: "For four decades, security has been defined largely in ideological terms. . . . The threat posed by continuing environmental deterioration is no longer a hypothetical one."As one author noted, "Threats to human security are now seen much more in environmental and economic terms and less in political ones."10 Michael Oppenheimer, a prominent atmospheric scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, summarized the attitude of many: "Any race of animals able to predict the warming of the Earth 100 years ago should be clever enough to stop it."11 But the question of what to do continued to loom large, and many of the answers that were offered found no strong backing in Washington.

Of course, when it rains, it pours, and a flood of debate came about in 1989 and continued into the early nineties. As scientific evidence on climate change grew and the Soviet Union fell, an opening was created for redefinition of a new national security paradigm. The notion of elevating climate change and the environment to the level of a national security threat spread into the wider foreign policy community, instigating a heated debate.

"The 1990s will demand a redefinition of what constitutes national security," wrote Jessica Tuchman Mathews, then vice president of the World Resources Institute, in the spring 1989 issue of Foreign Affairs, in an article titled "Redefining Security," still credited with sparking this debate in earnest. "In the 1970s the concept was expanded to include international economics," she wrote. "Global developments now suggest the need for another analogous, broadening definition of national security to include resource, environmental and demographic issues." She described the key issue: "Environmental strains that transcend national borders are already beginning to break down the sacred boundaries of national sovereignty." She also lamented the inability of current international relationships to manage the coming environmental and climate problems: "No one nation or even group of nations can meet these challenges, and no nation can protect itself from the actions— or inaction—of others. No existing institution matches these criteria."12

That spring, Senator Al Gore, one of the more vocal politicians adding weight to the climate change debate, expanded on this notion. "As a nation and a government, we must see that America's future is inextricably tied to the fate of the globe," he wrote. "In effect, the environment is becoming a matter of national security—an issue that directly and imminently menaces the interests of the state or the welfare of the people."13

Journalists, politicians, editorial boards, and scientists soon began to echo the concept: climate and environmental issues are of highly relevant national security and foreign policy concern. In the summer of 1989, the G-7 summit in Paris even focused on the environment, the first time the issue was a central discussion point for the group. Though it marked a positive trend that the topic was brought to the table, President George H. W. Bush and his counterparts were criticized for not pledging strong, immediate action.

Some members of the first Bush administration were lambasted for their skepticism regarding the strength of scientific evidence of climate change, and for their adamancy in sticking to that premise in international meetings, but others in government at the time advocated the elevation of this and other environmental issues. Thomas Pickering, Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, warned that "ecoconflicts" could become a major problem in North-South tensions.14 Bush chose a former World Wildlife Fund director, William Reilly, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and halted the strangling of its budget that had occurred under Ronald Reagan. Reilly asserted that "ecological integrity is central to any definition of national security"15 and proposed an array of measures to combat climate change, including improving vehicle fuel efficiency, increasing solar power research, and creating fees to deter coal and oil use, but to little avail. In the same month, before James Hansen was to testify again to the Senate on global warming, executive branch officials altered his testimony to cast doubt on his own scientific judgment. Congress and the press learned of this before the hearing, sparking a huge backlash at the skepticism and stalling of many members of the Bush administration concerning climate change.16

This trend—two contradictory responses to climate change—continued as some in the U.S. government began to treat environmental issues and climate change as strategically important fields, while others, including many in senior positions, pushed back or outright rejected the notion. The debate created enough waves to warrant significant attention from the mainstream press. In October 1989 Time magazine indicated which side of the debate seemed to be taking the lead in a special report, "The Greening of Geopolitics," with the headline, "A New Item on the Agenda: The Plight of the Planet Is Finally Serious International Business."17

The debate carried over into military considerations as well. Technologies that had been designed for military use or by the military were used to detect climate patterns, and old intelligence was opened for use in evaluating atmospheric data. Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, articulated in 1990 that "a new and different threat to our national security is emerging—the destruction of our environment. The defense establishment has a clear stake in countering this growing threat. I believe that one of our key national security objectives must be to reverse the accelerating pace of environmental destruction around the globe."18

Secretary of State James Baker's FY 1991 budget request testimony restated plainly that nontraditional threats, including environmental ones, were of national security concern:

Today and in the future, we must take collective responsibility for ensuring the safety of the international community. Traditional concepts of what constitutes a threat to national and global security need to be updated and extended to such divergent concerns as environmental degradation, narcotics trafficking, and terrorism. Our nonrenewable resources, human lives, and the values of civilized society all are irreplaceable assets which we cannot fail to protect.19

But climate change specifically was still treated by most as a very separate track from environmental concerns more broadly. Many who pushed the misconception that the science behind climate change was preliminary and that evidence of the link between emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and global warming was inconclusive only pushed harder into the nineties. EPA administrator William Reilly continued to warn of the dangers of a failure to act, stating in 1992: "We invested so much in responding to [a possible] nuclear attack from the USSR, even though the risk may not have been that high The risk of climate change is so much larger and yet there has been no equivalent thinking to insure ourselves against it."20

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