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Within the U.S. government, climate change is not just the concern of White House and environmental officials. The Pentagon will soon list global warming among the security threats facing the United States. Of course, the national security agenda is pretty full these days, so climate change has to compete for attention.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Security experts who focus on climate change don't bother evaluating the scientific claims about global warming. If there's even a chance the projections are accurate, they want to be prepared. I always look at the worst case, as 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. That's the intelligence view. And military leaders prepare for contingencies.

Vice Admiral LEE GUNN (U.S. Navy, Retired; President, American Security Project): The American people expect the military to plan for the worst.

GJELTEN: Retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn is president of the American Security Project.

Vice Adm. GUNN: So 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.

GJELTEN: Here's a case: the melting of the massive Himalayan glaciers. In theory, the rivers fed by the glaciers would flood at first, then dry up once the glaciers retreat. That would endanger tens of millions of people down below around Bangladesh. Retired Air Marshal A.K. Singh, a former commander of the Indian Air Force, foresees mass migrations across national borders, with militaries soon becoming involved.

Air Marshall A.K. SINGH (Former Commander, Indian Air Force): You see, it will initially start with people fighting for food and shelter. 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?

GJELTEN: Such are the scenarios that make climate change a security concern: migrations, humanitarian emergencies, food and water shortages, violent conflicts over resources.

The next Quadrennial Defense Review, an official once-every-four-years look a Pentagon priorities, will address climate change concerns for the first time ever. Amanda Dory is the deputy assistant secretary overseeing the review process.

Ms. AMANDA DORY (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Quadrennial Defense Review): The projections lead us to believe that things like severe weather events will increase in intensity in the future, perhaps in frequency, as well.

GJELTEN: And that means Defense Department planners figure civilian agencies will be looking for more military help to deal with natural disasters.

Retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn makes another point: Ship and aircraft designers need to consider the climate of the future.

Vice Adm. GUNN: When you talk about building ships that are going to last from 30 to 50 years or programming for Air Force and Navy and Marine Corps 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.

GJELTEN: Still, there's only so much military planners can do to prepare for the consequences of climate change. The Quadrennial Defense Review, due to be delivered in February, will say what climate change would mean for the Defense Department's roles, missions and installations. New responsibilities, new equipment, new bases? Not necessarily, says the Pentagon's Amanda Dory.

Ms. DORY: We don't anticipate that there are new mission areas as a result of climate change. 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.

GJELTEN: In Pentagon jargon, platforms are the things on which weapons are carried, like ships or aircraft.

Actually, climate change right now may be a more important subject for intelligence analysts than for military planners. The CIA's new Center for the Study of Climate Change is 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 actually put those countries on a stability watch list.

How far to go with these climate and security projections, however, is a matter of dispute. It's hard enough to figure out what'll happen next year, let alone 30 years from now.

Professor JAMES CARAFANO (National Security Studies, Heritage Foundation): We suck at predicting wars. We're not very good at predicting peace.

GJELTEN: James Carafano is an Army veteran and former West Point professor now directing national security studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Prof. CARAFANO: These are big, huge, giant, complex systems, and people that take a linear approach to these things and say, oh, well, if this happens, then we're going to have to worry about that, that's not how reality works out.

GJELTEN: Carafano agrees dramatic climate change could have major security repercussions. But he says jumping to the wrong conclusions could be as dangerous as ignoring climate change altogether.

The bottom line: 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.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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SHAPIRO: Next, Tom travels to Columbia, a country where security and climate are both big concerns. That story tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and at npr.org.

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SHAPIRO: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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