Thursday, September 24, 2009

Taking warnings seriously

Guest post by Jessie Daniels

Jessie Daniels is a principal of the Truman National Security Project and is currently an independent writer living in New York City. Most recently, she conducted research on future security challenges and multilateral response at the International Peace Institute in New York. Prior to that, she worked for four years as a national security legislative aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

[This is Jessie's third guest post at The Reaction. Her first, on Obama's Af/Pak strategy, can be found here; her second, on the use of Twitter and other new media in Iran, can be found here. -- MJWS]


Here in New York City, in the midst of Climate Week, warnings are in the air. Small nations fear extinction due to rising seas, while Bangladesh, the 8th largest country in the world, warns that one-third of the country could be submerged, forcing the displacement of 20 million people.

While these warnings come from countries halfway around the world, the conditions they alert us to can act as threat multipliers. And that brings the issue right back home.

Displacement due to the effects of climate change is already putting a strain on island nation populations in the South Pacific. For example, Kiribati, with a population of just over 100,000, has been conducting difficult negotiations with New Zealand to absorb its population. But such difficulties would only be magnified if a country as large as Bangladesh experienced massive displacement. Its location between India and Burma could raise tensions in an already tense part of the world. Moreover, destabilization in a noted terrorist safe haven adds even more fire to a potentially volatile pot.

At the other climate extreme, we already see how the effects of climate change can lead to violence. Kenya's worst drought in recent history is causing tribal violence that is expected to be ongoing until the drought is over, continuing the risk of spillover to neighboring areas or countries.

These threat multipliers could significantly affect our security abroad and at home. The Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council testified last year that "[a]s climate changes spur more humanitarian emergencies, the international community's capacity to respond will be increasingly strained. The United States, in particular will be called upon to respond. The demands of these potential humanitarian responses may significantly tax U.S. military transportation and support force structures, resulting in a strained readiness posture and decreased strategic depth for combat operations."

In addition, the U.S. might have to help fund humanitarian responses should one of these warning signs evolve into a major emergency. Particularly if our military is still overstretched or if the economy has not turned around by that point, this could place an even heavier burden on our troops and taxpayers.

We should heed these warnings because threat multipliers can turn local troubles into global conflict. And when one nation drowns, we could end up paying the price.

(Cross-posted from Operation FREE.)

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