Although some of the emergencies created or worsened by climate change may ultimately be managed by the UN, the United States will often be looked to as a "first responder" in the immediate aftermath of a major natural disaster or humanitarian emergency. The larger and more logistically difficult the operation, the more urgent the appeal will be.
The question of whether and how to respond will be a recurring one for the United States, each time raising a difficult set of questions with important national security and foreign policy implications: How much financial assistance should the United States pledge and how quickly? With which other countries should the United States seek to coordinate its response, either operationally or diplomatically? Should the U.S. military participate directly, and if so, in what capacity and on what scale?
This last question is particularly sensitive, but it presents potential geopolitical rewards as well as risks. For instance, the U.S. military played a vital role in the international relief efforts undertaken in the aftermath of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. There was simply no substitute for the more than 15,000 U.S. troops, two dozen U.S. ships, and 100 U.S. aircraft that carried out the operation.
The performance of the U.S. military was resoundingly applauded by the international community. In Indonesia itself, the public image of the United States improved dramatically: a Pew Research Center poll conducted in the spring of 2005 found that 79 percent of Indonesians had a more favorable impression of the United States because of its disaster relief efforts, and as a result the United States' overall favorability rating in Indonesia rose to 38 percent after having bottomed out at 15 percent in May 2003.95 U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was right to describe the military's response to the tsunami and the subsequent improvement of America's image in the region as "one of the most defining moments of this new century."96
But it is not yet clear whether the tsunami response will be remembered in thirty years' time as "defining" or as an exceptional case. As the world looks to the United States for assistance with greater frequency, and when disaster strikes in places where the U.S. military could be greeted with some hostility, executing relief missions will become increasingly complex and dangerous.
What will happen when a U.S. soldier or marine is killed by an insurgent or terrorist in the midst of a relief operation? Will the United States shun direct participation in countries where it fears that short-term humanitarian assistance could evolve into long-term stability operations, even if it is precisely these countries that are in the greatest danger of failing without such direct engagement?
It is not only shifting international and domestic political circumstances that will present new challenges to the U.S. military: the shifting physical environment will do so as well. The increased frequency of severe storms will create adverse conditions, particularly for air and sea operations, while rising sea levels may threaten the long-term viability of bases situated on islands or low-lying coastal areas.
Consequently, the U.S. military will need to plan for how it would protect or, in extreme circumstances, compensate for the loss of bases in vital strategic areas such as the Diego Garcia atoll in the southern Indian Ocean, which serves as a major hub for U.S. and British missions in the Middle East and was instrumental in the military's rapid response to the tsunami.97 Expanding existing bases or establishing new ones can be both expensive and politically treacherous, and it is possible that the United States will choose to invest more in developing its own offshore "sea basing" platforms that do not require host country consent.
The roles of the U.S. Army and National Guard will also need to evolve. At present, National Guard troops are responsible for responding to domestic natural disasters when needed, yet their deployment overseas (for either military or relief operations) can leave the United States short of troops and equipment precisely when climate change will be causing more extreme weather events domestically. Furthermore, regular Army and Marine Corps troops may need to receive training in how to provide disaster relief in potentially hostile environments, perhaps as part of a post-Iraq focus on developing the skill sets needed for counterinsurgency, stabilization, and other nonconventional operations.
More generally, it is possible that the United States will become reluctant to expend ever greater resources on overseas disaster relief, not to mention longer-term humanitarian and stabilization operations, as the impact of climate change at home becomes increasingly acute. Natural disasters already cost the United States billions of dollars annually, and the IPCC projects that climate change will create an "extended period of high fire risk and large increases in area burned" in North America and particularly in the western United States.98 In addition, the United States will have to meet rising health costs associated with more frequent heat waves, a deterioration of air quality, and an increase in waterborne disease.
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This is common knowledge that disaster is everywhere. Its in the streets, its inside your campuses, and it can even be found inside your home. The question is not whether we are safe because no one is really THAT secure anymore but whether we can do something to lessen the odds of ever becoming a victim.