Global conflict experts say the Obama administration’s recent focus on climate change as a national security threat may be misguided.
“The link between global warming and national security needs is tenuous at best, though the Arctic might be an exception, if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin continues his revanchist ways,” Harvard psychology professor and best-selling author Steven Pinker said in a recent e-mail interview. “Most wars have nothing to do with climate, and vice versa.”
The Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy emphasizes climate change as a long-term national security threat that must be balanced with more immediate concerns such as terrorism. In an interview last month with Vox, Obama added that media tend to overstate terrorism as a threat compared to climate change.
Joshua Goldstein, professor emeritus at American University and a political science research scholar at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said in an e-mail interview said there’s a dubious connection between global climate change and armed conflict.
’Climate change is a terrible crisis that needs all our attention, but it’s not really war that will be the problem we’ll have to deal with,” Goldstein wrote in an e-mail. “As for the U.S. government, it’s always going to be on the lookout for threats that justify ongoing high military budgets, even when violence is declining historically — though of course increasing modestly in the past five years [due to Syria].
“I think the officials genuinely think this is a threat they must prepare for, but I also suspect that if it wasn’t this, it would be something else.”
A study released last week linked the ongoing war in Syria to a drought precipitated by climate change, but Goldstein says most extreme weather events and natural disasters – which are not all linked to climate effects — do not result in armed conflicts.
“There is some evidence that drought was a factor in Syria and some other scattered cases,” Goldstein said. “But the 2004 tsunami actually seems to have helped end the war in Aceh [Indonesia] and didn’t create a new war.
“The typhoon in the Philippines a year ago didn’t cause the war there to restart,” Goldstein added. “The terrible flooding in Eastern Europe a couple of years ago doesn’t seem to be connected to the Ukraine violence. In Somalia a few years ago there was a terrible drought and start of a famine, but it didn’t make the war worse — if anything, the opposite.”
Pinker, whose 2012 bestselling book Better Angels of Our Nature concludes armed conflict around the globe is on the decline, has consistently rejected climate change and any resulting scarcity of natural resources as likely causes of major wars in the future.
“Physical resources can be divided or traded, so compromises are always available; not so for psychological motives such as glory, fear, revenge, or ideology,” Pinker wrote in 2013. “There are many reasons to worry about climate change, but major war is probably not among them.”
The Department of Defense in October released its Climate Change Adaption Roadmap, with then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel writing, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.”