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Anything Goes: The Dangers of Linking Climate Change to National Security

Do the ends justify the means? This age-old question has relevance to today’s climate debate. This fall the Senate has the historic opportunity to pass legislation to curb U.S. carbon emissions. To win conservative votes, leading supporters of climate legislation are now recklessly playing the national security card. While in the short term this strategy may garner some votes, in the long term it threatens to militarize climate policy and subvert the mission of U.S. humanitarian and development aid.

Momentum is building fast. In July a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on climate change and global security raised the specter of climate-induced chaos, terrorism and mass migration in poor and unstable regions that might necessitate an American military response. The New York Times moved quickly to embrace the strategy. A lead editorial ( proclaimed that this reasoning plays well on Capitol Hill “where many politicians will do anything for the Pentagon.” It concludes that while national security is not the only reason to address climate change, “anything that advances the cause is welcome.”


Admittedly, there are some legitimate reasons for the Pentagon to be worried about climate change. As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S., the Department of Defense has a responsibility to reduce its own emissions. Concerns about the effects of rising ocean waters on military bases or who will control new shipping channels in the Arctic are grounded in physical reality. But much of the way climate change is being framed as a national security threat is pure ideology, based on unscientific scenarios designed to instill fear of those poor, dark, dangerous people over there.

The first such scenario appeared in 2003. Sponsored by the Pentagon, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario painted a world of starving Third World masses overshooting the carrying capacity of their lands, engaging in violent conflict over scarce resources, and storming en masse towards U.S. and European borders. Even the climate scientists interviewed for the project considered the findings too extreme.

A next round of influential scenarios on climate and security was undertaken in 2006-7 by the Washington think tanks, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Wall Street Journal dubbed CNAS as a “top farm team” for the Obama administration’s national security apparatus. Michele Flournoy, co-founder of CNAS, is now Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

The CNAS-CSIS project predicts that as the mercury rises, so will the violence of the poor, especially in Africa. With a rise of 4.7 degrees by 2040, Western governments will have to engage in triage and decide which of the poor are worth saving. There is hope, however -- war, disease and draconian population control measures might restore an environmentally sustainable relationship between people and nature. The scenarios were supposedly developed by a diverse group of experts, but serious scholars from the Global South are conspicuous by their absence.

There’s a powerful exceptionalism at work in these scenarios. While it is commonly assumed that resource scarcity can lead to institutional and technological innovation in the West, just the opposite is assumed for poor people in developing countries. Climate change-induced scarcities automatically render them into victims/villains, incapable of innovation, adaptation or livelihood diversification, and naturally prone to violence. They are savages and we are not.

The scenarios also neglect the political and economic causes of conflict, including the role of foreign intervention through financial or military means. In Africa, violent conflict is actually connected more closely to competition over resource abundance (rich oil and mineral reserves, valuable timber, diamonds, etc.) than resource scarcity. A recent World Bank study by Norwegian researchers found that current alarms about climate conflict are not based on substantive evidence (

Unfortunately, evidence is not really the issue here. The beating of the climate conflict drums should be viewed in the context of larger orchestrations in U.S. national security policy. In recent years the military has moved to exercise more control over humanitarian and development aid. In 2005 the share of US foreign aid dispersed by the Pentagon was 22 percent, up from six percent three years before. Obama’s defense policy views aid as an essential component of stabilizing restive populations, taming “ungoverned spaces” in Africa and Central Asia where terrorists may lurk, and building a “whole-of-government” approach toward security, shorthand for Pentagon dominance of most aspects of foreign policy.

The new U.S. military command for Africa, AFRICOM, is an example of what may lie in store. AFRICOM seeks to integrate U.S. military objectives more firmly with development ones and its staff includes senior officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development. This approach has generated criticism from inside the national security establishment as well as outside. Writing in Joint Forces Quarterly (, Ambassador Edward Marks calls AFRICOM’s creation “a retrograde move” that threatens “the increasing militarization of our foreign relations.” Supporters of AFRICOM are already deploying the threat of climate conflict as a justification for its existence.

The climate change-national security linkage could also provide a rationale for investments in grandiose and risky schemes to control the weather. This March an official advisory group to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) convened a meeting to discuss the possibility of geo-engineering as a response to global warming.

History is full of examples of how ends do not justify the means, and indeed how bad means lead to bad ends. The cavalier attitude that “anything goes” when it comes to passing climate legislation is pushing us down a dangerous road. In a democratic society, civilian institutions should determine climate policy and the disbursement of foreign aid. Should U.S. assistance be needed to help poor communities cope with the impacts of climate change, the Pentagon should stay out of it.

Betsy Hartmann

Betsy Hartmann is the author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness (Seven Stories Press/NY) and Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (third edition, Haymarket Books). She is a professor emerita of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Visit her website


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