National Security on a Crowded, Troubled Planet

Published on February 28th, 2014

In recent years, U.S. military leaders have become increasingly worried about the menacing implications for our national security due to deteriorating environmental and demographic conditions globally.

Not known as your garden-variety tree huggers or “the-sky-is-falling!” Chicken Little types (at least when it comes to the environment), generals and admirals stress that it is their duty to be well-informed about the underlying phenomena that can drive threats to their forces and to the American public they have sworn to protect and serve.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) W. Chris King, Ph.D., P.E., is Dean of Academics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In a presentation titled “Afghanistan: An Environmental Security Case Study in Climate Change and Security,” King makes the following points:

  • A critical function of government is to provide peace and security for its people, i.e. providing defense.
  • The military are required, as part of their security mission, to analyze present and future threats.
  • Without a sustainable environmental setting that provides for basic human needs, no stable peace can exist.
  • Therefore, environmental security is a component of defense/security policy assessment – a significant topic of national interest of every nation.

Gen. King quotes ecologist Norman Myers of Oxford University from a now-classic 1986 article:

…national security is not just about fighting forces and weaponry. It relates to watersheds, croplands, forests, genetic resources, climate and other factors …

Speaking in January 2014 to the Kansas Farmers Union during its annual convention in Topeka, King observed that there is no historical precedent for the onslaught of overpopulation, resource depletion and climate change now confronting America and the world:

We have nothing on which to base projections. We have to assume climate change is going to make everything worse. And there’s no easy, immediate fix. It’s a really, really hard problem.

King told the Kansas farmers that the bottom line would be more failed states, more tension and conflict, and higher demands on military forces.

In his presentation on Afghanistan, from which American forces are finally slated to withdraw in 2014 after prosecuting the longest war in American history (since 2001), King gives that country an overall Environmental Security Risk rating of “Extreme.”

This is based on grades for its water and forest resources, arable land, and crops. On a scale from A (good and improving) to F (awful) – where B is good, C is average and D is bad – King grades Afghanistan with an F for water, F- for forests, and F each for arable land and crops.

To make matters worse, according to the Population Reference Bureau, with a fertility rate of 5.4, Afghanistan’s population of 31 million is projected to hit 40 million by 2025 and 57 million by 2050.

“(J)ust when you think it can’t get any worse, it does,” says King. Climate models predict Afghanistan’s average temperature will soar 4°C by 2090. Concurrently, precipitation is predicted to decline 5-20%, and the impact on the snowpack and snowmelt (upon which the populace depends, like Californians) in the Hindu Kush mountain range is expected to be severe, with up to 40% less runoff anticipated by century’s end.

Combined, these elements are a recipe for disease, drought, famine, widespread misery and instability.

Gen. King emphasizes that defense and security are much more than wielding military force and that protecting the peace means assuring regional stability, which is now threatened by environmental degradation.

America has made a considerable investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan, but rapid population growth and worsening environmental conditions render any and all gains precarious. And Afghanistan is but one example of a number of countries now on the brink.

Reining in raging population growth is just one piece of a complex puzzle, but a vital one.

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