I’m not sure what to make of this story in Foreign Policy. It seems like a textbook case of China’s nationalist capitalism trumping U.S. security interests. On the other hand, the writers of the piece might have a bad case of sour grapes (but they are upfront about their advisory role to a Western oil & gas firm that got outbid by the Chinese).
In related news, Steve LeVine informs us that
The great Arctic oil race is under way.
Yes, it is.
With stories such as this and this becoming more common, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would show why energy security is no longer a winning issue for climate change advocates. Today, Michael Lind makes the case in Salon:
As everyone who follows news about energy knows by now, in the last decade the technique of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” long used in the oil industry, has evolved to permit energy companies to access reserves of previously-unrecoverable “shale gas” or unconventional natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, these advances mean there is at least six times as much recoverable natural gas today as there was a decade ago.
Natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal, can be used in both electricity generation and as a fuel for automobiles.
The implications for energy security are startling. Natural gas may be only the beginning. Fracking also permits the extraction of previously-unrecoverable “tight oil,” thereby postponing the day when the world runs out of petroleum. There is enough coal to produce energy for centuries. And governments, universities and corporations in the U.S., Canada, Japan and other countries are studying ways to obtain energy from gas hydrates, which mix methane with ice in high-density formations under the seafloor. The potential energy in gas hydrates may equal that of all other fossils, including other forms of natural gas, combined.
This is all fairly mind-blowing, and is sure to scramble global warming politics and policy. Here’s Lind sketching out the big picture:
If gas hydrates as well as shale gas, tight oil, oil sands and other unconventional sources can be tapped at reasonable cost, then the global energy picture looks radically different than it did only a few years ago. Suddenly it appears that there may be enough accessible hydrocarbons to power industrial civilization for centuries, if not millennia, to come.
So much for the specter of depletion, as a reason to adopt renewable energy technologies like solar power and wind power. Whatever may be the case with Peak Oil in particular, the date of Peak Fossil Fuels has been pushed indefinitely into the future. What about national security as a reason to switch to renewable energy?
The U.S., Canada and Mexico, it turns out, are sitting on oceans of recoverable natural gas. Shale gas is combined with recoverable oil in the Bakken “play” along the U.S.-Canadian border and the Eagle Ford play in Texas. The shale gas reserves of China turn out to be enormous, too. Other countries with now-accessible natural gas reserves, according to the U.S. government, include Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, France, Poland and India.
Because shale gas reserves are so widespread, the potential for blackmail by Middle Eastern producers and Russia will diminish over time. Unless opponents of fracking shut down gas production in Europe, a European Union with its own natural gas reserves will be far less subject to blackmail by Russia (whose state monopoly Gazprom has opportunistically echoed western Greens in warning of the dangers of fracking).
The U.S. may become a major exporter of natural gas to China — at least until China borrows the technology to extract its own vast gas reserves.
The bottom line, according to Lind:
Two arguments for switching to renewable energy — the depletion of fossil fuels and national security — are no longer plausible.
Now that is a game changer.
Here’s news and (a headline) that is sure to rankle many in the climate and environmental communities:
Obama seeks to promote more oil drilling in Alaska, offshore
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, since this is what he said during his recent “energy security” speech in March:
Meeting this new goal of cutting our oil dependence depends largely on two things: finding and producing more oil at home, and reducing our dependence on oil with cleaner alternative fuels and greater efficiency.
This begins by continuing to increase America’s oil supply. Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003. And for the first time in more than a decade, oil we imported accounted for less than half the liquid fuel we consumed.
To keep reducing that reliance on imports, my Administration is encouraging offshore oil exploration and production ““ as long as it’s safe and responsible.
First, due to changing environmental conditions (sea level rise, subsidence, changing storm activity, etc.), historical records may no longer be reliable predictors for future risks.
For example, the summer of 2003 was unusually hot. Many of the French nuclear power stations are cooled by river water. But, in 2003, the rivers were so warm, they couldn’t be used to cool as normal. That caused the powering down or shutting off of 17 French nuclear reactors. It cost the French utilities hundreds of millions of dollars to buy power from neighboring countries.
This ‘anomaly’ happened again in the summers of 2006 and 2009, again causing powering downs at French nuclear facilities. According to the Hadley Center, by 2040, it will be ‘commonplace‘ for European summer temperatures to reach 2003 levels.
This new environmental change variable is often left out of risk assessments for all manner of new infrastructure builds. Dams in India are seeing reduced generation capacity as a result of shifting monsoons. Sections of oil and gas infrastructure along the U.S. Gulf Coast are suffering repeated shutdowns due to flooding, hurricanes and subsidence. Homes in the US and UK are already being built on actual floodplains, let alone areas that are likely to become floodplains.
What I find notable (and refreshing) about Paskal’s approach is that she frames energy and climate issues as part of the larger phenomenon of “environmental change.” I know that’s a bland rubric but in my opinion it’s a more accurate characterization of the multiple, intertwined stresses on the planet today.
That’s essentially what Michael Levi is saying in this smart post. His lament is that energy and related environmental issues are not viewed through a wider lens:
Until we can think about security, economics, and environmental risk at the same time, we’re going to have a lot of trouble developing an energy policy that makes sense.
This made me think of an interesting conversation I had with someone earlier this week (a veteran of counterinsurgency campaigns), who was asserting that the U.S. military plan in Afghanistan similarly made no sense, because it pairs traditional counterinsurgency tactics (e.g., winning hearts & minds) with a heavy boots on the ground footprint. That large military presence (much of it a supply network) requires conventional firepower support that, in turn, leads inevitably to collateral damage (enraging the hearts & minds of indigenous would-be friendlies) and the subsequent undermining of the counterinsurgency campaign.
Thus, it would appear that the U.S. has a screwy war policy to go along with its screwy energy policy.
Guess who’s asking the hard questions on climate science and policy. The U.S. military and geopolitical/security specialists.
Earlier this week, an array of of defense, national security and climate experts took part in a conference hosted by the Scripps Oceanography Center for Environment and National Security. This was the symposium agenda and here’s the opener from a story by Lauren Morello:
Tell us what you don’t know.
That’s the message military and national security experts gathered here want to send to climate scientists.
This follows on the heels of a panel event held earlier this month by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change Security program. That discussion, between environmental security scholars and policy experts, explored
the unintended security consequences of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The conversation there appears to have centered on the complicated interplay between energy policy, food security, environmental conservation and geopolitical concerns, among other things. Here’s a nice overview of the specific issues covered, and this summation:
The panelists stressed that taking actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change is necessary, but that we must evaluate the full range of potential effects of these strategies. “We need to blow open the box on how complicated these problems are,” [Cleo] Paskal said. “We need as many different people involved and as many different sorts of solutions as possible.”
Paskal is a climate security scholar, whose recent book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map, I reviewed several months ago for Nature. (I have a longstanding interest in the environment/security nexus; here’s an exchange with experts and a related interview I conducted recently on this blog.)
To me, the calls for better forecasting and additional voices and options at the climate policy table is a good thing. In some popular quarters of the blogosphere, though, where climate change is of paramount concern (and political calculations are always present), this plea for more information by military and security experts is likely to be considered “unhelpful.” Heck, on one influential blog, raising such nettlesome issues that draws undue attention to any limitations of climate science and a preferred policy prescription, is liable to get you pegged as an “anti-science, climate disinformer/delayer.”
One of the catch-phrases President Obama didn’t use in his much parsed Oval Office speech on Tuesday was energy security. He did, however, make a glancing, split-second reference when discussing the costs associated with a transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy (emphasis added):
And there are some who believe that we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy -”“ because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.
Obama’s reluctance to mention energy security in his speech strikes me as odd, considering how the term has become a central plank in his Administration’s energy policy and also a popular new Democratic talking point, which Michael Levi, an energy expert, notes in this recent Foreign Policy piece:
That two-word phrase — “energy security” — is an idea invoked frequently by everyone from oil company executives to green-energy proponents, and one that has taken center stage in the United States since the Gulf spill. Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited energy security in explaining the need to continue drilling in the outer continental shelf. Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman have argued that their new clean energy and climate bill will help the United States achieve energy security. Obama’s new National Security Strategy, published last month, invokes energy security no fewer than four times.
That Obama didn’t talk about energy security in his Oval Office address perhaps owes to the main point of Levi’s FP article, which is reflected in the subhead:
Politicians, oilmen, and green-energy boosters love to invoke the idea of energy security. None of them know what they’re talking about.
Levi includes himself in this clueless category. Earlier this week on his own blog at the Council on Foreign Relations, he wrote:
The phrase “energy security” is on my business card, yet whenever anyone uses it, I scratch my head.
I admire this humble tone from an energy scholar. Levi’s forthright attitude echoes the refreshing openness that a number of leading environmental security experts exhibited on this site during an excellent thread on the equally squishy climate security term.
The issue of climate security, which a number of experts discussed on this thread, is gaining prominence in U.S. policy and political circles. But as I wrote in this story last November, “a sense of urgency has been building in military and intelligence circles around the world” too. Climate security has also leaped to the top of think tank agendas in the U.S. (see here, here, and here) and in the U.K., where Jeffrey Mazo studies the security and policy implications of climate change at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Mazo has just published a book, Climate Conflict: How global warming threatens security and what to do about it. In the introduction, he writes:
The scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the climate is changing in response to global warming. In the past, climate change has affected the stability of societies, nations and civilisations, so the historically unprecedented change scientists are observing raises the spectre of increasing and accelerating social, geopolitical and economic disruption over the rest of this century and beyond.
Yesterday, I conducted a short Q & A with Mazo via email.
Q: In your new book, you devote a chapter to cases in prehistory where climate change contributed to a state’s downfall. You conclude:
It is clear that climate change does not always lead to contraction or collapse, and that contraction or collapse can occur in the absence of climate change. But climate cannot be ignored, since instances of climate change have challenged cultures throughout history. The way they met that challenge as much as the nature of the challenge itself provides a mirror for the security challenges posed by unprecedented warming we now face.
So is there one particular historical mirror that we should be looking into, one shining example of a society that successfully met the challenges posed by climate change?
JM: There really isn’t one shining example, since every circumstance is unique. It’s the common threads that run through widely varying examples that teach us valuable lessons. And, in a sense, it’s sort of the opposite of Tolstoy’s dictum that “˜happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.
Nations and cultures tend to fail in the face of climate change in similar ways, but the successes are all different. And it’s paired examples of different responses to the same circumstances like the Inuit and the Norse in medieval Greenland, or modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or drought in the American West in the 1800s, the 1930s and the 1950s, that are most revealing.
What they tell us is that the relative ability of different societies to adapt is the most important factor. In part that’s a question of what a society can afford to do, but most crucially it’s a question of whether a society or political system is flexible enough to make necessary changes, and fast enough, to cope with climate shocks.
We’re rich enough in the West, and in the industrialised world as a whole, to cope, at least in the medium term. Whether we’ve got the flexibility is another story. But in the short to medium term, it is the poorest and least developed countries that fall short on both grounds, and where we can expect security challenges to increase.
Q: In recent years Darfur has been held up as a cautionary tale of climate change and ethnic conflict. In a 2007 Washington Post op-ed, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote:
Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.
But some environmental security experts say it is oversimplistic and even historically inaccurate to blame the Darfur conflict on climate change or resource scarcity. In your book, you devote a chapter to Darfur. What’s your take on this?
JM: I think the disagreement among environmental security experts on this point is merely a difference of emphasis and perspective. The Darfur conflict was not caused by climate change, if you mean that climate change was both a necessary and a sufficient condition.
But in fact, in the case of Darfur, the further one gets from a simplistic, reductionist view of causality the more climate change (and probably greenhouse-induced climate change) is a critical factor underlying the violence. If we are asking “˜what caused the Darfur conflict’ (or any other conflict), this entails an examination of the relative contributions of different factors, and whether they are deterministic or predictive. There can be any number of equally valid answers, some of which have more relevance to finding solutions, or apportioning moral blame.
But if the question is whether climate change can cause (or contribute to conflict), Darfur can be readily adduced as evidence. To say that other factors were equally, or even more, important politically or morally is not to deny that Darfur was in this particular sense a climate-change conflict. Ban Ki Moon’s interpretation of the causes of the Darfur fighting was in fact more nuanced than some critics have given him credit for.
Q: Given how difficult it is to disentangle political, cultural, and environemntal factors, how can we best assess climate change as a legitimate security issue?
JM: I think there are two ways to answer this. One is to look at the long-term, dangerous, even potential catastrophic impacts of climate change as an existential security threat that justifies the sorts of actions outside the security sphere that will be necessary to avoid those impacts. In other words, we need to avoid the security threat, so we need to mitigate emissions and move to a low carbon economy as quickly as possible.
This is something I don’t really look at in my book, which focuses on the short to medium term. Over the next thirty years or so, which is the usual horizon for defence and security planning, the impacts will, as you say, be difficult to disentangle from political and cultural factors, especially given the relatively modest degree of climate change we expect over this period.
In the medium term the trend will be more ‘more of the same’–an incremental, quantitative change in things like civil unrest, violence and civil wars – rather than qualitatively new threats like resource wars and maritime border changes (from sea level rise) and land border changes, from melting glaciers. And though we can be confident that the security threats will increase in the aggregate, precisely where and when they will manifest is impossible to predict.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comment thread, where a number of top environmental security experts weigh in.
I bet you you think this is going to be a continuation of last week’s discussion. Nah.
This week, I’ll be talking to scholars and experts who study the linkages between climate change, energy, and security. The shorthand for that nexus is climate security or energy security. Or, put another way: global warming = war.
In 2007, think tanks were just starting to define the climate/energy/security nexus. In 2008, intelligence experts sounded the alarm. In 2009, the CIA opened a climate change shop. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review declared:
Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.
In reality, the linkages between climate change, energy and national security are complex. Remember that impenetrable counterinsurgency powerpoint slide that recently bounced around the blogosphere? I bet there’s an equivalent one somewhere under lock and key that has a geopolitical diagram of the climate security threat.
What follows is a Q & A with two environmental security experts that seeks to clarify some of the core issues that have come to define climate security and energy security.
Geoff Dabelko is Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatam House, in London, and the author of the recent book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map. (Disclosure: Several months ago, I reviewed Global Warring for Nature.)
Two questions for Geoff Dabelko:
Q: Last September you wrote in the journal Climatic Change that, “”˜climate security’ is in danger of becoming merely a political argument that understates the complexity of climate’s security challenges.” This recent commercial by VoteVets.org seems to bear out your concern. What is the danger of oversimplifying the climate security issue for political reasons?
GD: Distilling complex topics into compelling sound bites demands (over)simplification and big leaps from problem to solution. But after grabbing people’s attention, what argument are you really making?
Careful analysis of climate and security linkages must inform advocacy efforts and policy responses. But we must realize that a wide range of players will interpret this analysis for their own ends.
Environmentalists should not use climate security just because it “polls well” or because military officers make effective communicators. In the 1990s, environmental security was proffered as the national security issue of the 21st century, but when that proved not to be the case, the blowback was fatal.
The security concerns related to climate and energy range well beyond typical climate advocacy goals. For example, the Pentagon is focused on clear tactical vulnerabilities such as IEDs targeting fuel re-supply missions, and strategic vulnerabilities, including dependence on unstable regimes for fuel. Both concerns have led DOD to prioritize fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, which can help reduce carbon emissions but are not direct arguments for passing a cap and trade scheme.
Similarly, climate change could act as a “threat multiplier” or “conflict accelerant” in regions of the world already destabilized by poverty, scarcity, and/or poor governance. While climate change may contribute to this instability, it should not be framed as a new type of conflict or a certain path to catastrophe.
For example, not all “climate migration” will be destabilizing or even negative. Migration has been a rational adaptation strategy in the past and will likely continue to be one in a warmer future. Yet advocates are often tempted to paint a picture of hundreds of millions of migrants flowing South to North. Such false precision in the face of tremendous uncertainty undercuts the legitimacy of the problem.
The bottom line: Climate change poses a range of security challenges, some of which must be met by security actors and others by civilians. Those efforts must be based on precise analysis, even when fitting it on a bumper sticker.
Q: Energy security is a buzz phrase that has made its way into the political discourse. It’ll probably be invoked as a central plank of the U.S. Senate’s climate bill, whenever that is unveiled. How can the U.S. best achieve energy security?
GD: Energy security is not a new label but an enduring one that gained salience in the oil crises of the 1970s. It is now surging past climate change as the political frame for the energy and climate efforts on the Hill and at the White House.
Energy security has unfortunately been conflated with the call to “end our dependence on foreign oil.” While politically appealing, this slogan is practically impossible, given the nature of the global oil market, and probably undesirable and unnecessary–Canada, our friendly neighbor, is actually our largest supplier of oil. The challenge is to channel the strong support for reducing trade with fragile or hostile suppliers into support for measures that increase efficiency, cut demand, and transition to alternative fuel sources. Making these demand-side reductions–not just changing suppliers–is a key step to achieving energy security. It’s politically more difficult, but ultimately necessary.
We also need the software as well as the hardware. Achieving energy security requires an honest accounting of subsidies and regulatory incentives and disincentives for the full portfolio of existing and future energy technologies and sources. Alternatives to fossil fuels remain at a tremendous disadvantage despite recent changes for the better. Massive public and private investment in technologies must be accompanied by revolutions of equal importance in regulatory and behavior change arenas.
Energy security depends on addressing the current and future energy infrastructure vulnerabilities, including equipment failure, extreme weather events, long-term environmental change (i.e., sea-level rise/surges in the Gulf or pipelines built on thawing permafrost), regulatory inflexibility, and terrorist attacks.
Three questions for Cleo Paskal:
Q: What’s the big collision coming up at the intersection of climate change and U.S. national security?
CP: Environmental disruptions (caused by climate change but also other environmental change factors, such as depletion of groundwater) are increasingly threatening domestic U.S. security across the board, including economically, socially, politically and militarily.
Stimulus package spending is a good example. This was an opportunity to shore up the U.S.’s physical infrastructure and defenses. However little, if any, assessments were made to see if the new builds were placed in locations that would be compromised by environmental change. As a result, instead of reinforcing stability, you can end up with infrastructure that pulls people into areas that are going to become increasingly dangerous – for example along some vulnerable coasts.
There are a lot of challenges coming our way, but there is also a lot of low hanging fruit. Little things that can be done that will dramatically increase security — such as ensuring that environmental impact assessments include not only an installation’s impact on the environment, but also a changing environment’s impact on the installation. We can do this. We have to.