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Bill ties climate to national security

"The Pentagon has plans for every conceivable -- and often inconceivable -- contingency," Representative Edward J. Markey, said.

By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff  |  April 9, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The CIA and Pentagon would for the first time be required to assess the national security implications of climate change under proposed legislation intended to elevate global warming to a national defense issue.

The bipartisan proposal, which its sponsors expect to pass the Congress with wide support, calls for the director of national intelligence to conduct the first-ever "national intelligence estimate" on global warming.

The effort would include pinpointing the regions at highest risk of humanitarian suffering and assessing the likelihood of wars erupting over diminishing water and other resources.

The measure also would order the Pentagon to undertake a series of war games to determine how global climate change could affect US security, including "direct physical threats to the United States posed by extreme weather events such as hurricanes."

The growing attention to global warming as a national security issue could open new avenues of support for tougher efforts to limit greenhouse gases, according to specialists.

"If you get the intelligence community to apply some of its analytic capabilities to this issue, it could be compelling to whoever is sitting in the White House," said Anne Harrington , director of the committee on international security at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. "If the White House does not absorb the independent scientific expertise, then maybe something from the intelligence community might have more weight."

The measure, sponsored by Senator Chuck Hagel , a Nebraska Republican, and Senator Richard J. Durbin , an Illinois Democrat, comes as other international bodies are taking steps to designate global warming as a high international priority.

The United Nations Security Council has put climate change on its agenda for the first time, warning that global warming could be a catalyst for new conflicts around the world. The council said it would hold a high-level meeting on the issue later this month.

"The traditional triggers of conflict which exist out there are likely to be exacerbated by the effect of climate change," said Emyr Jones Parry, Britain's UN ambassador.

The push in the United States to treat global warming as a national security threat follows the same path as previous efforts to treat the spread of AIDS as a security threat. The disease was long seen as exclusively a health issue until intelligence officials warned that it could ravage military forces across Africa and draw the United States into conflict.

Growing concerns about the implications of global warming have also led some Republicans and Democrats to give the issue far more prominence in policy circles.

"For years, many of us have examined global warming as an environmental or economic issue," Durbin said in little-noticed remarks last month. "We also need to consider it as a security concern."

US spy agencies -- would rely on the latest scientific data. It would identify places where nations or ethnic groups are most likely to fight over resources; where large migrations of victims will occur; how global warming would affect global food supplies; and the increased risks to humans from infectious disease.

Ross Feinstein , a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said that intelligence analysts have studied global warming in the past but in a limited way. Greater priority, he said, has been given to what are considered more pressing threats to security, such as nuclear proliferation, global terrorism, and the war in Iraq.

However, in 2003, two Pentagon analysts wrote a provocative report on the possible national security implications of an abrupt change in the climate, citing, among other outcomes, the prospect of nuclear powers struggling to feed their people and being forced to fight over shared rivers.

"With over 200 river basins touching multiple nations, we can expect conflict over access to water for drinking, irrigation, and transportation," the analysts wrote. "The Danube touches 12 nations, the Nile runs through nine, and the Amazon runs through seven."

The proposal would go further than any previous investigation, requiring the Pentagon to assess in great detail how global warming could damage America's military preparedness, such as the effect of melting Arctic ice sheets on the Navy.

David G. Hawkins , director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said some emerging research suggests that dramatic changes in ocean temperatures could hamper the ability of warships to operate in some regions of the world.

"[Submarines] take advantage of the ocean having certain characteristics," Hawkins said. "You could wind up with weapons that are no longer optimal because they were designed for the climate that existed thirty years before."

Sponsors of the Senate measure say it is likely to be approved, given the wide support for charting the impact of climate change and the traditional reluctance of lawmakers to stand in the way of research into national security.

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat and chairman of the newly created House Select Committee on Energy Dependence and Global Warming, said he plans to offer a companion bill in the House.

"The Pentagon has plans for every conceivable -- and often inconceivable -- contingency," Markey said in an interview, adding that the possibility of disasters related to climate change must be taken into account.

In addition, some leading military thinkers, including retired Air Force General Charles Wald, have voiced support for bringing the national security bureaucracy into the debate over global warming. Wald is former deputy commander of the US European Command and a specialist on security issues in Africa.

John J. Hamre , who served as deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said global warming couched in security terms would make if far more difficult for politicians to ignore.

"What makes this interesting is the clear effort to make the politics of global warming broader," said Hamre, who is now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are legitimate security issues associated with this question."

Bryan Bender can be reached at

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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