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A U.S. Army helicopter flies over the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan in this 2002 photo. U.S. security analysts are trying to develop a set of early warning signs that could suggest which countries are in most danger of being destabilized as a result of dramatic climate changes.
Global warming is now officially considered a threat to U.S. national security.
For the first time, Pentagon planners in 2010 will include climate change among the security threats identified in the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Congress-mandated report that updates Pentagon priorities every four years.
The reference to climate change follows the establishment in October of a new Center for the Study of Climate Change at the Central Intelligence Agency.
But the new attention to climate concerns among U.S. security officials does not mean the Pentagon and the CIA have taken sides in the debate over the validity of data on global warming. As with nuclear terrorism, deadly pandemics or biological warfare, it only means they want to be prepared.
"I always look at the worst case," says one senior intelligence official who follows climate issues. "Whether it's global warming or the chance of Country A invading Country B, I just assume the most likely outcome is the worst one."
Military officials, accustomed to drawing up detailed plans for a wide variety of contingencies, have a similar view.
"The American people expect the military to plan for the worst," says retired Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, a 35-year Navy veteran now serving as president of the American Security Project. "It's that sort of mindset, I think, that has convinced, in my view, the vast majority of military leaders that climate change is a real threat and that the military plays an important role in confronting it."
Among the scenarios that concern security planners is the melting of the massive Himalayan ice mass. In theory, the rivers fed by the Himalayan glaciers would flood at first, then dry up once the glaciers retreat. That would endanger tens of millions of people in lowland Bangladesh.
Retired Air Marshal A.K. Singh, a former commander in India's air force, foresees mass migrations across national borders, with militaries soon becoming involved.
David Greedy/Getty Images
Boats vie for passengers at a flooded intersection in downtown Sirajganj, Bangladesh, in this 2007 photo. The flooding was caused in part by melting snow in the Himalayas. Among the scenarios that concern U.S. security planners is the melting of the massive Himalayan ice mass, endangering tens of millions of people in the region.
Boats vie for passengers at a flooded intersection in downtown Sirajganj, Bangladesh, in this 2007 photo. The flooding was caused in part by melting snow in the Himalayas. Among the scenarios that concern U.S. security planners is the melting of the massive Himalayan ice mass, endangering tens of millions of people in the region. David Greedy/Getty Images
"It will initially be people fighting for food and shelter," Singh says. "When the migration starts, every state would want to stop the migrations from happening. Eventually, it would have to become a military conflict. Which other means do you have to resolve your border issues?"
The drafters of the Quadrennial Defense Review were instructed by Congress to accept the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization to gather and report world climate data.
Neither the Pentagon nor U.S. intelligence agencies make an independent effort to assess the planet's climate, and U.S. security officials have generally tried to distance themselves from any debate over the validity of the IPCC data. Instead, they focus on the security repercussions.
"The [IPCC] projections lead us to believe that severe weather events will increase in intensity in the future, perhaps in frequency as well," says Amanda Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense overseeing the review process. "This is a mission area where the Department [of Defense] already responds on a regular basis in support of civil authorities, whether for floods, wildfires [or] hurricanes. We believe there's a possibility those types of requests will increase in the future."
Climate change could also have implications for ship and aircraft designers.
"When you talk about building ships that are going to last from 30 to 50 years or programming for aircraft that are not going to be put in the air for 20 years, you have to be thinking about the kinds of changed conditions into which you're going to throw them in the future," Gunn says.
Still, there is only so much military planners can do to prepare for the consequences of climate change. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, due to be delivered in February, is required to identity what global warming may mean for the Defense Department's "roles, missions and installations."
But Dory of the Pentagon says there won't be much change in that area.
"We don't anticipate that there are new mission areas as a result of climate change," Dory says. "Similarly, there may be changes in technical specifications for platforms, but not the need for new types of platforms that we don't already possess." (In Pentagon jargon, "platforms" are the things on which weapons are carried, like ships or aircraft.)
In the short term, climate change may be a more important subject for intelligence officials than for military planners.
Analysts at the National Intelligence Council are trying to develop a set of early warning signs that could suggest where the next famine might arise or which countries are in most danger of being destabilized as a result of dramatic climate changes. Intelligence officials put those countries on a "stability watch list."
But how far to go with such climate and security projections is a matter of dispute.
"We suck at predicting wars, and we're not very good at predicting peace," says James Carafano, a retired Army officer and former West Point instructor who now directs foreign policy and national security studies at the Heritage Foundation. "These are huge, giant, complex systems, and people who take a linear approach to these things and say, 'Oh, well, if this happens, then we'll have to worry about that' — that's not how reality works out."
Perhaps not, but it's the job of national security officials at least to imagine future climate and security scenarios, whether they can do something about them or not.