An interview with Sherri Goodman about climate change and military readiness
Originally published in On Earth.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE director, Dennis Blair, warned the Senate in February of a growing threat to global security. Climate change, he said, could affect “domestic stability in a number of key states, the opening of new sea lanes and access to raw materials, and the global economy more broadly—with significant geopolitical consequences.”
Blair’s testimony, which formed part of the Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community, echoed a concern raised two years ago in a report published by the CNA Corporation, a research organization in Alexandria, Virginia, that focuses on security and defense issues. The CNA report was signed by a group of 11 retired generals and admirals, chaired by the former Army chief of staff General Gordon Sullivan, who warned that climate change “will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope.” CNA issued a second report on the topic in May 2009. Sherri Goodman, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security for eight years under President Bill Clinton, directs CNA’s Military Advisory Board.
Your new report is about the military itself, which is the single largest energy consumer in the United States. How does that manifest itself on the battlefield?
Of the top 10 vehicles used in our deployments, only two are actually combat vehicles. The others provide fuel and water. Seventy percent of the tonnage that’s deployed to the battlefield is fuel and water. So the more we can reduce that, the better off we are—in terms of efficiency, in terms of cost, and in terms of our need to run convoys where our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are at risk.
What is the Pentagon doing to reduce its carbon footprint?
Our report focuses on ways in which the military can move to lower-carbon solutions in a manner that improves effectiveness and at the same time harnesses the innovation and initiative that’s always been an essential ingredient of our military. You know, the American defense industry is known for its technology development—everything from stealth technology to the Internet. There’s a great demand to create lower-carbon energy sources that would benefit both the military and society as a whole.
When you think about the potentially destabilizing impacts of climate change, which ones worry you the most?
The potential for mass migrations. Rising sea levels, increased health threats, natural disasters, reduced agricultural productivity—all those factors will force thousands, if not millions, to move. Whenever large numbers of people migrate, there’s always the risk of instability. The most talked-about example is Bangladesh, where millions of people live in low-lying coastal regions. As the seas rise, many of those people will migrate to higher ground, either in India or perhaps farther on into Pakistan. Those are regions that are already overpopulated. There are ethnic tensions there. This could be a toxic brew.
That’s potentially a complex humanitarian emergency as well as a security threat. Do you see the military intervening more in humanitarian crises?
The U.S. military has superior transportation and security capabilities that most other organizations can’t provide. It’s performed exceptionally well in certain natural disasters, such as in response to the Indonesian tsunami. But it’s important that the military not be seen as the only organization capable of responding, because then it will become overstretched and won’t be able to fully prepare for other types of threats. I recall a story of an officer who was part of the task force that deployed to Haiti in the 1990s. He said to me, “Sherri, when I was a young officer in the sixties, I trained to go to war with the 82nd Airborne on my right and the 101st on my left. I went to Haiti and we had an NGO on my right and the Agency for International Development on my left.”
You mentioned the public health impact of climate change. Does that present a threat to soldiers in the field?
As the climate changes, diseases are moving into areas where they didn’t exist before—diseases like malaria that put our solders at risk. When I was deputy undersecretary of defense I oversaw the Armed Forces Pest Management Board, a group of medical and scientific experts who are responsible for understanding what types of diseases troops might be exposed to. So whenever we deploy our troops, we look at the disease profile for the region they’re going to and try to protect them as much as possible.
In planning for the future, has the Pentagon started to conduct any climate-related war games?
That’s just beginning. I think we’ll probably see more in the future. I did participate in a war game last year that CNA cosponsored with a number of other think tanks. It was not about force planning; it was more at the diplomatic level, dealing with a series of concurrent natural disasters seemingly caused by climate change. Representatives from China, India, the United States, and the European Union all played different parts—their governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations. So in the context of a war game we role-played the ways in which these countries would reduce greenhouse gases and address other elements of climate change, such as migration.
We’ve already talked about South Asia, but climate change is likely to present security threats in other parts of the world, too, such as the Middle East.
The Middle East is abundant in oil and scarce in water. I think water may be as important in the next 50 years as oil has been in the last 50. I’ve been to Israel and I’ve seen how the shoreline of the Dead Sea has receded in the last several decades as water has been pumped out. The ability of Israel and Gaza to come to an accommodation depends, in large measure, on how they address the water needs of people in Gaza.
How about China?
The Chinese understand the gravity of climate change. They’re clearly looking, as the United States is, at a variety of forms of energy for the future. They’re quite advanced in solar. On the other hand, the scale of the measures needed to adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change in a country that populous is just enormous. It seems more likely than not that there will be instability associated with climate change over the coming decades.
Having achieved our own standard of living by large-scale energy consumption, how do we tell countries like China that they can’t?
It’s very complicated. It’s this era’s version of negotiating with the Soviets over nuclear arms control agreements during the cold war.
People are also beginning to talk about the Arctic as a potential security concern, especially since some of the new projections of polar ice melt and sea-level rise are even more dire than the earlier worst-case scenarios.
Yes, this could be very serious. As they’re watching the Arctic melt, the various Arctic nations, including Russia and Canada, are asserting a variety of claims in the region. The Northern Passage and the Northwest Passage were both open briefly in September 2008 because of the receding ice. A melting Arctic could mean more human activity, whether for transportation, tourism, or access to the vast energy and mineral resources that have heretofore been relatively inaccessible. The Arctic Ocean is unlike the other oceans of the world. Because of its small size and the way its currents circulate, the impact of a disaster—another Exxon Valdez , for example—is magnified.
As you contemplate all the threats we’ve talked about, doesn’t it make you feel pessimistic?
We made it through the cold war without a nuclear attack by either superpower on the other. That gives me optimism.