Climate Change and National Security Two recent studies say the changes global warming will bring — drought, crop failures, rising sea levels — could stress vulnerable nations and lead to civil and political unrest. The author of one of the papers discusses how global warming could also be a matter of national security.
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Climate Change and National Security

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Climate Change and National Security

Climate Change and National Security

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Up next, some lawmakers are pushing a bill that would require U.S. intelligence agencies to take up a new task: analyzing how climate change could affect national security. Think about it.

The proposed legislation comes on the heels of two recent reports that lay out this basic scenario. You have rising temperatures worldwide that are projected to cause large-scale heat waves. Seeing some of those heat waves already. Droughts, we've got the droughts. Australia has been in a drought for six years now. You have rising sea levels, new disease outbreaks, which internal stress many poor and already vulnerable nations.

And that raises the risk of widespread civil and political conflict, which is certainly a matter of national security not only for those countries, but for countries like ours that deal with these issues.

So for the rest of the hour we're going to talk with the author of one of the new reports about the connection between climate change and national security. If you'd like to give us a call, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK.

Peter Schwartz is the author of "Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence." He's a co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network in San Francisco. Welcome back to the program, Peter.

Mr. PETER SCHWARTZ (Global Business Network): Hi, Ira. Glad to be back.

FLATOW: I don't know how much you - you have been listening to the program before?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Unfortunately, I couldn't listen, to be honest. It wasn't broadcast here in Santa Fe.

FLATOW: That's right, you're in Santa Fe. Well, let's talk about your report. You know, you have been talking about this for a couple of years. People are beginning to finally pay attention that climate change is - does have national security issues.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I think that's right. I think the view of this has changed fundamentally. Let me just say one thing, quickly, Ira, if I may - all your friends here at the Santa Fe Institute, all your fans say hi.

FLATOW: Okay, thank you.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Anyway, I think the climate for climate change has changed over the last few years in several very important respects that I think has changed the government's view and the public's view about the national security implications of this. You know, I think, for example, Katrina was very significant in this regard. Not that Katrina was caused by climate change, no one can say that, but the scale of the disaster, the consequences, the disruption to society, and for example, one of the most effective institutions that was involved in dealing with it was the U.S. Coast Guard. And so that became a kind of object lesson in some of the kind of consequences of climate change and the role of security agencies in dealing with it.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about some other kinds of security concerns that a climate change would bring on. Give us a little laundry list of the kinds of things that could happen.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Sure. Well, you know, I think we actually have - the paradigm cases already occurred, and that was Somalia in the early 1990s, where we had an extended drought leading up to a major famine, leading to the collapse of the government, leading to the rise of warlordism, and really chaotic situation. The UN tries to come in and help in relief efforts in a violent environment. The United States military comes in in support of that and has a huge military disaster in Mogadishu.

The issues - we're going to keep seeing more of those. And I think in your introduction you touched on a number of the kind of environments that we're likely to encounter.

The rising - combination of rising sea level will affect a number of societies, most significantly places like Bangladesh, which are already at sea level. And then we are likely to get either - at either extreme - very dry weather, i.e. droughts and/or very severe storms. So imagine Bangladesh hit by a very severe storm after a bit of sea level rise - you've got something on the order of a hundred million people living already at sea level. Those people will be almost instantaneously homeless, and they'll be headed inland toward China and India. And now you've got a huge border crisis as refugees are streaming across the Indian and Chinese borders in the millions - not in the thousands, but in the millions; that's the kind of thing we're likely to encounter in an increasing array.

Now, here in the United States, a great example would be Haiti. That is where you have already a shattered ecosystem, a barely functional political system, an economy that is extremely fragile. Now imagine it had been hit by Katrina. Suddenly you're going to have thousands, tens of thousands of refugees headed toward the United States. And again, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard will come into play in dealing with those.

So it is those societies that are right at the margin already - places in Africa, places in parts of Asia, places in the Caribbean, Central America - that are so overstressed that when they get hit by these kind of changes - and these are not distant changes, these are things that are already beginning to hit that will begin to create enormous societal disruptions.

FLATOW: Talking with Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Peter Schwartz.

And you have issues of - you mentioned drought, but you have also issues of water shortages in places that may not have drought now. But it's on the brink, like the Middle East.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, yes, you take a number of the key rivers in the Middle East, and if they, again, were hit, like with the Australian drought that is already underway that you mentioned - and Australia is now six years into this very severe drought; I mean the Prime Minister's praying for rain, I mean they've got to that point. So you can imagine that we will see those kinds of effects in South - in the Middle East.

But one of the ones that I worry about most is in fact Asia. If you think about it, the great river systems of Asia - the Indus, the Gangis, the Brahma Putra, the Mekong, the Yellow and the Yangtze - all come out of the Himalayan Highlands, an area that is vulnerable to drought. If you wind up with a mega-drought in the Himalayan Highlands, suddenly you're going to have two and a half billion people fighting over water.

And the Mekong, for example, goes through six different countries, beginning in China and ending in Vietnam. And each of those is dependent upon that for drinking water, for transportation, for industry, for agriculture. The Chinese start damming that river to manage the water for their own interests downstream of that river, they're going to have a lot of problems. So that's the kind of conflict that I think will be endemic in a world of rapid climate change.

FLATOW: You're also - you also may have diseases spreading where they've never spread before, from things like mosquitoes or other carriers, other vectors, and countries having to deal with those that can't afford to deal with those either.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly. You know, what happens is that tropical diseases move northward, and a combination of lack of resources as well as lack of experience with those diseases begins to hit; you don't even detect them. New forms of malaria. We've already seen the West Nile Virus in the United States, as probably an example of that here. We're, you know, reasonably well equipped for it. But as these diseases move northward out of Africa and Latin America, a lot of societies will be hit hard by those as well.

FLATOW: Are military planners taking these things seriously?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: They're beginning to. You know, they - they remember Somalia. They see what's going on in Darfur, and Darfur is another example of that. They've had the experience of Haiti. So for example, the U.S. Navy is taking this very seriously as part of its long-term strategy. I work directly with the chief of naval operations - the CNO, as he's called, Admiral Mike Mullen. He's the head of the Navy, and he's doing a new national maritime strategy.

We're involved in a conversation with the country. We're involved in meetings all over the United States, and everywhere we go, people bring up the issue of climate change as a potential threat for the future. And the Navy is taking this seriously. They're among the people who are most likely to have deal with this.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Peter Schwartz, author of "Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence." He's also a co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network in San Francisco. We're going to take a short break, come back and talk lots more with Peter, take your calls, talking about the policies - implications of global warming and threats now to our national security and the national security of other countries. How should we get involved in thinking about these issues? Your answers and some more questions after this break. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow. My guest is Peter Schwartz, author of "Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence" and co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network in San Francisco. They came out with a report - was it 2003, Peter?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, it was actually two reports, one in 2003 and then one just a few months ago.

FLATOW: And you - there are other reports coming out. I'd also want to point a report that was released last month by the CNA Corporation, which is a non-profit research and analysis organization, that reflects very much what you said, Peter, that they have - they 11 retired four-star and three-star admirals and generals, and they are basically saying the same thing you are.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: That's exactly right, Ira. You know, I think you're seeing a across the military spectrum people beginning to take these issues seriously. It (unintelligible) across all the services, I think this report was very significant in putting on the agenda for the rest of their fellow officers, this as an issue for consideration. I think, for example, one of the things that they highlighted that's very important are the disruptions that are going to happen in Africa. You know, a number of countries that are already very - under very difficult circumstances, in particularly the sub-Saharan region, right at the margins of the Sahara, so places like Chad and Kenya and Tanzania and so on, Uganda - these are places that are going to be very hard hit as the deserts move south, as water issues become significant, as you know, historic conflicts become ever more difficult to manage.

FLATOW: Are there purely military technology issues? Like the equipment you design, and this report also pointed out that - that the salinity of the oceans if glaciers melt and water temperatures change - could affect submarine equipments such as sonar?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Sure. They look very directly at some of these effects, not only the effect on things like sonar and submarines but even things like, you know, you have to go under bridges. If you're a ship coming out of port, are you going to be able to make it through the - get out of port and so on?

So there are those kinds of things that they look at. So you know, they're very direct, operational. And one of the big things, of course, for them is energy. They're one of the biggest energy users around. About 70 percent of battlefield logistics is moving fuel and water. Well, if, you know, we are in a period where we radically want to use - reduce our energy consumption and CO2 production from energy, they are one of the key players in this regard. And so changing how they use energy is an important issue for them.

FLATOW: I think I read once that the U.S. Navy is the biggest single user of diesel fuel in the world.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I can easily believe that. I mean, just think what power - you know, a non-nuclear aircraft carrier, think what it takes to power one of those.

FLATOW: And (unintelligible) one of the bases, perhaps is San Diego, they were going - actually going to be looking into bio-fuels, bio-diesel.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Oh - in fact, they're pursuing this very aggressively, particularly for, you know, things like tanks and armored personnel carriers and so on, where if you could adjust the fuel mix, it would have a very big impact.

FLATOW: Is the military already responding to the problems associated with climate change? You mentioned - and we're talking about the Navy. There is one example of already responding.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, in fact, one of the big experiences for them recently was the consequences of the tsunami. And the implications of the U.S. involved in the relief efforts in Indonesia had an enormous positive effect on U.S.-Indonesian relations. And here is a Muslim society, hard hit, 200,000 dead. The U.S. gets its hospital ship in, its relief efforts within 36 hours, and is a major force in dealing with it.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for those kinds of interventions are going to be increasingly frequent, and they will be involved in a number of them.

FLATOW: Does this idea that global warming is a security issue - is it realized nationally? Is it realized at the U.N., other places of opinion leaders?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I think it's still pretty early, most everywhere else. I don't see much evidence yet of it being taken seriously. You know, oddly enough, you know, climate change is taken very seriously in many other countries, but the security implications have not been well addressed. Here in the United States where, you know, the White House hasn't taken it seriously, at least the military and the intelligence community have.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Sean in Troy, Michigan. Hi, Sean.

SEAN (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

SEAN: My question was - or actually I'm looking for an opinion regarding how people tend to take very draconian measures when they feel that governments don't react in trying to correct the situation themselves. And how do you and your guest think that that could occur?

FLATOW: Peter?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, if you mean by draconian measures significant cuts in energy consumption, I'm not so sure that's draconian. I mean, I don't regard - so far the United States has not taken aggressive policy measures to reduce our CO2 production.

FLATOW: He may - I think...

SEAN: I mean more in an extremist sense, whereas...

FLATOW: ...they revolt or take to the streets or something like that.

SEAN: ...they decide to do an environmental type attack against, say...


SEAN: ...a large volcano in the hopes of setting it off to reduce the temperatures that way.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I must confess I think it's highly unlikely. I mean, I don't know how you would actually trigger a volcano or actually introduce geological effects of that sort. I must confess I don't see the mechanism, actually, how you might play that out.

FLATOW: Where do you think these new bills in Congress are going to be headed that seek to bolster your opinion about global warning as a threat to national security?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Oh, I think they're going to pass. I think it's very clear that both the House and the Senate want to do this. And interesting enough, there's an interesting history here, Ira, that isn't well known. Actually, this was tried at the very end of the Clinton administration.

Vice President Gore, working with Senator Feinstein, had introduced something called Project Medea(ph) with this precisely in mind. Naturally, the outcome of the election ended that. And this is an effort to re-launch that both by Senators Feinstein and several members of the House Intelligence Committee as well.

FLATOW: And what are they asking specifically for?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: They are asking for a comprehensive assessment, what is called the National Intelligence Estimate. You know, frankly, the kind of things that we did on Iraq or on Iranian nuclear weapons. So they are asking for a comprehensive intelligence assessment across all the agencies, because only several of the agencies have actually addressed this, to look at the security implications. And I think it's thoroughly appropriate. And given that they dominate the Senate and the House today, I think it's very likely they will pass. And this is not a bill I think the president will veto.

FLATOW: What systems in your report, you focused on systems that are already generally vulnerable and to work at them first. Which are the most vulnerable systems?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, the core linkage that ties everything together is water. So the things that are particularly vulnerable are things like agriculture. So, you know, an enormous amount of the world depends upon irrigated agriculture, and those depend upon the river systems and rainfall, and so what we have is a high degree of vulnerability.

So, for example, you take Southeast Asia, India and China, which I mentioned earlier with respect to the water flow out of the Himalayas. Well, a few decades ago, we all expected that India might be starving. They've done a remarkable job of improving their agriculture productivity. This could undermine that, could dramatically increase the costs and dramatically decrease the output. And India has already great difficulties with water before we get to climate change.

So it is agricultural systems, then you get to industrial and urban systems after that. And even transportation. We saw, for example, two or three years ago, there was a big drought in Central Europe and the level of the Rhine began to drop significantly. And industrial transportation, commercial transportation up and down the Rhine, was seriously disrupted. Imagine the Mississippi with severe drought. We depend heavily upon our rivers for transportation and you could easily see those kinds of systems disrupted.

FLATOW: Now, we've got the whole Southwest here.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly.

FLATOW: Which is starting a drought again. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phone to Bob in Wabeno, Wisconsin. Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Good afternoon. I'm a farmer who farms about 40,000 acres in four states in the upper Midwest and two Canadian provinces, and we actually would benefit from a drier, warmer climate in terms of production in the upper Midwest.

Our farms are wet and cold, which is happening again this year. How would - in my understanding, this calculation of large grain would increase with the productions, at least in the upper of Midwest. Would that put the United States in a stronger position globally if there was an increase in corn and other production due the warmer, drier climate of the upper Midwest?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, there are two considerations. One is the rate of change, and the second is what happens elsewhere. Because, of course, if the change is too fast - and some of these effects can happen within a few years, not centuries or even decades - the disruption to the local ecosystems can actually reduce productivity. In other words, how fast can you adjust your crop mix, how fast can you adjust to the changing climate.

But equally important, the things that may be producing in some ways in the long term in a somewhat more benign climate for you may in neighboring states or in other parts of the United States - for example, the Southeast - dramatically reduce agricultural output. So it is more likely to move it around, decreasing in some places and potentially increasing in others rather than a net gain.

FLATOW: Bob, is this wet and cold climate a new climate for you?

BOB: No, but the upper Midwest we - our problem is our worst years of the cold, wet years as opposed to the hot, dry years. And basically, if we could get an extra two weeks of planting in our growing season, then we could move the Corn Belt 100, 150-miles north up into middle Canada, which would be tremendously productive.

The same in Siberia, you could move corn production north in there. And these are issues that, you know, in terms of long term, I've got, you know, 30, 40 years. I'd like to leave my operations to my children. And we really are looking at how the future is going to be, and I find this program extremely helpful for that.

FLATOW: But it's interesting that you're thinking so far ahead. You know, as I'm sure people who are thinking of seaside property for their grandchildren are thinking ahead.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly. And I think the caller is pointing to something that's very significant. There are likely to be some winners from climate change, particularly if you take it in the long run. However, the real issue is that in the short run what we're likely to see is increasing frequency of disruptive events and more severe disruptive events.

So that while, yes, it may be true that you would find yourself on average over the long term with a more benign climate, in the nearer future you could find yourself faced with, say, more frequent storms, or more frequent tornadoes, or torrential rains rather than gradual rains, or flooding. It is these disruptions in the short run that could have a negative effect even it it's more benign in the long run.

FLATOW: Yeah, Bob. Think about what - a storm might wipe up your crop one year. Could that happen?

BOB: That's true. But we have the - you know, fortunately in the United States we have the luxury that our agriculture is well developed. I'm probably not quite as susceptible as those in developing countries. But thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. It's interesting that people are finally, I mean, you'd never this conversation years ago.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: No, no. You know, but I think that is a new phenomenon, Ira. In the last two years we have seen a wholesale shift in American attitudes on climate change. I think there is a national consensus that we need to act on this and we need to act very urgently. I think in the next presidential race it's going to be who's greener than thou.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Peter Schwartz this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

A lots of folks on the phone. Let's see if we can get a couple of more calls in. Let's go to - oops, let's go to Homer in Santa Cruz. Homer, hi. Are you there? Homer in Santa Cruz.

HOMER (Caller): I heard your conversation about the national security and the world security and climate change. And years ago I heard that the Pentagon put out a pretty good report about that climate change was going to be a bigger threat to world security than terrorism ever could be. And I think, you know, that most wars are wars of aggression for resources anyway. So I would just like to put that out there that the Pentagon has a great report, and I imagine it's online.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Oh, actually it was my report.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOMER: Was it about six years ago?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: About three years ago.

HOMER: Uh-huh

FLATOW: Tell us about it.

SCHWARTZ: Yes, it is online. It is on the Web site at

FLATOW: Does it say that this would be a bigger - and do you believe, Peter, that this was a bigger threat than terrorism on national security?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Absolutely. This is, I think, the greatest threat that civilization faces. You know, that's not to minimize the threat of terrorism. I think it's a very real threat. I don't want to, you know, these are both real issues, so let's not, you know, spend too much time on fighting which is more important.

It is the scale of this - the disruption of societies on a scale we've never seen before. That's the issue. Now, in fact, look, we've experienced climate change that has been disruptive in human civilization many times. Some of the pre-Incan societies literally disappeared through droughts. Parts of the Middle East have disappeared through droughts.

So, you know, human civilization has already been affected a number of times by major climatic disruption. The little ice age had a huge effect, that period roughly from 1350 to 1850. So we've already been there in that respect.

FLATOW: And so what is the recommendations here to do? What can we do to prevent these scenarios from coming true?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, I think there's two things we need to do. One has to do broadly with climate change itself. We need to do all those things urgently to reduce the likelihood of dramatic climate change. All the things of reducing CO2 and so on, increasing nuclear power, increasing renewables, et cetera, increasing efficiency, all the things that most of the climate advocates are recommending.

But, in addition, we need to take very seriously the planning for these humanitarian crises, for these disruptions, for the disruptions of agriculture, and the especially dealing with the water issues. Putting in place agreements among countries on how they're going to deal with it and so on. In other words, preventive diplomacy, if you will.

FLATOW: I also think that, you know, as cities become more vulnerable to rising sea levels or whatever, you're going to have the flowing of money available for - that used to be - might have been used for national defense to putting up levees and things like that, the long-range planning.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, you think about a place like Miami. Imagine if Miami had been hit by Katrina. There's no doubt that big parts of our South and Florida are going to be particularly vulnerable, and we're going to have to spend a fair amount of money protecting, literally, our territory.

FLATOW: And that will be the new definition of national security.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: No question.

FLATOW: Yeah, it'll be how well you're protected from the effects of global warming.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly.

FLATOW: Because that's where the giant effects are going to happening. Are you optimistic, Peter, that people are going to finally listen to the reports you've been putting out for years?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Absolutely. Look, I think it's already happening. I think the - as it was, the glacier has broken and we are in fact moving quickly now. And I think there's a very, very broad consensus. I think even the White House is beginning to come around on this.

So I think the likelihood of action is very great. Now how effective that will be quickly in changing the trajectory of the climate is anybody's guess. But I don't think we have any choice. And I see the, you know, the consensus building rather rapidly to act.

FLATOW: All right. Well, thank you Peter for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: My pleasure. Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Peter Schwartz, author of "Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence" and co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network in San Francisco. His research papers are online.

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