For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Richard Feynman

Consultant Dan

26 April 2010

Natural Security puts neo-cons and denialists on the defensive

One of the unwritten stories of the Presidency of Barack Obama is the policy and ‘reframing’ work done by progressive think tanks. They are trying to take back US politics from the neo-cons for a generation, even on the hallowed conservative turf of national security. Democrats are trying to bring climate change concerns into the core of international relations thinking in Washington.

American national security used to be divided between the Hawks and Doves, but now we can see a triangulation, thanks to the emergence of a certain ecological realism. (Hopefully, someone else can think of a snappy new name to call this new group.)

This week will see a major address by The Honorable Carol Browner (Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change) to a forum on ‘Natural Security’ hosted by a military affairs think tank called The Center for a New American Security (CNAS). To get a sense of the influence CNAS is having on the new Administration, note that co-founder Michèle Flournoy is President Obama’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

The concept of ‘Natural Security’ is an amalgam of the ideas of national security and nature conversation. Can it reframe the national security agenda out of the hands of the neo-cons? Australian Labor Party MP Nick Champion seems to think so, based on his spirited piece in Crikey, where he wrote:

Climate change sceptics have a profoundly irresponsible approach to our national security because their ideology does not allow them to acknowledge the potential threats we may face, and their denial of the evidence could leave our nation unprepared for a hostile and uncertain future. Make no mistake; if you’re a self confessed climate sceptic then you’re as soft as butter on Australia’s defence.

Some elements of ecological realism are already being incorporated in US policy. In February 2010 the Pentagon included climate change in its regular update on security posture. This is a development of some interest to the Chinese, as in this report on ChinaDialogue, which is my favorite news source about China and the strategic challenges posed by climate change.

Crikey published a piece by me at the time:

Pentagon: Climate change threat to national security

Several hours from now the US Congress will be told that climate change is a real and present threat to national security, not by a political advocate or climate campaigner, but by the Pentagon itself.

This is the fourth installment of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the first to canvass climate security. Previews of the Review appeared in media over the past few days. The Guardian quotes from the Review, “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world”.

The QDR provides the strategic framework for Department of Defence (DoD) planning over the next four years and will start reshaping the US military within months, as it forms the basis of the immanent DoD FY11 budget submission.

It was Congress which required in 2008 that this QDR would include climate change, but the Pentagon now works for an administration that is taking action to end America’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Environmentalists and US Democrats hoping for a shift in climate politics in Washington have some reason to be optimistic. The QDR is the responsibility of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, who is an advocate for climate concern in the security policy community.

While in her position as Undersecretary, Flournoy wrote an article on ‘the contested commons’ where she gently pushes the mandate of her QDR review beyond strategic force ‘rebalancing’ and towards a shift in ‘leadership’. She Link Textcalls for the military to shape a ‘healthy international system’, including of course, freedom in Cyberspace.

Undersecretary Flournoy co-founded the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in 2007 and made climate a core work programme. CNAS ran a war game in 2008 called Clout & Climate Change where she presented a fictional UN Threat Assessment.

In 2009 CNAS launched a process to influence the standing of climate change in the QDR process, called Promoting the Dialogue. Its military connections gave it access to dozens of interviews with DoD officials and it also ran a forum, under Chatham House Rules. This is an important instance of a shift in power from the hawks of the Bush era in Washington and back towards the doves view of international relations, which stresses interdependence and can meaningfully accommodate the concept of climate security.

Then on the weekend when the Guardian was getting its leaked copy of the QDR, who does it quote but a CNAS research Fellow, Christine Parthemore. She was the perfect fit for the role because she is technically ‘independent’ from CNAS. In her former career she was a research assistant to journalist Bob Woodward on State of Denial: Bush at War Part III and The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat.

The QDR calls on the Military to use information resources to contribute to interagency assessments of climate change impacts, from remote sensing of Arctic ice-melt to socio-political stresses. Secondly, the CNAS context makes it implicitly understood within Pentagon and State Department circles that an international agreement must prevent emissions taking the Earth beyond the climate tipping point. Thirdly, the DoD is accelerating technological developments in energy conservation and renewable energy (ably assisted by United States Secretary of Energy. Steven Chu. Fourthly, it makes mitigation and climate crisis response a responsibility of the DoD, both domestically and internationally.

It remains to be seen what kind of progress the Pentagon can make in ‘operationalising’ the QDR’s climate emphasis into some kind of ‘Obama Doctrine’. Note that the Pentagon is also about to deliver the Nuclear Posture Review, setting policy for the next decade including the promised follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

What kind of impact these shifts have on Australian politics and policy remains to be seen. It is a sign of these strange times that aspects of the Pentagon’s stance on climate change closer to the pacifist Bob Brown than the major parties.

The full report was given to the subscriber-only Congress Daily, but those outside the paywall can leverage their cyberfreedom and read a copy via Government Executive.

I am interested to see how these policy changes in Washington resonate with three-way politics emerging in the UK election campaign. Any party that accepts climate science should be able to cast its foreign affairs and defense policies in terms of Natural Security. This will have political benefits to whichever party gets there first.

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