03 August 2009

New CNA report links energy issues with climate change

It was quite a while ago that I referred a new report by the CNA Corporation entitled "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" to fellow blogger Tom Barnett in the hopes that he might put forth serious consideration to the idea that climate change impacts can indeed become drivers of conflict on regional scales. Issues in Darfur were heating up, and for the most part that was explained away as a conflict between the agricultural black Africans and pastoralist Arabs over simple matters of territory and access. That explanation barely scratches the surface of the issues, however, so listen up.

The CNA Corporation has just recently released a follow-up report to that first on national security titled "Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security" which is linked explicitly on their site to the earlier report on climate change. Both were produced by the CNA Military Advisory Board, it turns out - aside from diplomacy, the military is still our best guarantor of national security, no matter how thinly our troops may be stretched about the globe right now. The earlier report identified climate change as a "threat multiplier," essentially a driver that could turn marginally stable situations to bad, and make bad situations even worse. Climate change drives the desertification of the Sudan so that the semi-arid band across the immediate sub-Saharan portion of Africa, known better as the Sahel, moves southward toward the equator. One might suggest that this band is our principal indicator of stability in middle Africa, north of the Congo at least. As farmers lose marginal agricultural lands to the desert, they retreat toward the coastal areas, while monsoons fail to bring regular moisture to the same areas and much of subsistence society, put under greater pressure by the following pastoralists, eventually collapses. We've learned a lot of things from the settlement and development of the American West that we ought to be applying in our assessments of other regions: forty acres may support a hard-working and quick-learning family dedicated to farming for years on end, just to subsist and keep their land, but the same area can support one lonely head of cattle for a grazing season, and then the cow better move on to greener pastures or that forty acres will never recover from being grazed down to its grass roots.

And now, if climate change was not enough to wake up the masses and bring about some attention to the issues at hand, lots of people in places of power will be paying significantly more attention to a new report on energy. Let's get one thing straight and clear: national security means a lot of things, and the military part includes tanks and MRAPs and jets and aircraft carriers and submarines and helicopters and Tomahawk missiles, not a single one of which runs on renewable energy resources. When American troops enter a country to do their jobs, they don't bring along a football-field of photovoltaic panels or build a hydropower plant before getting to work. Does this mean that the military is falling behind? Not at all - they do what they have to do, and we all appreciate the freedoms that their work ensures. Without our current wars of choice, we would be putting off inevitable wars of necessity, and it has been recognized for decades that access to energy resources are a matter of national security. When it comes down to it, that's why America is in Iraq, why Russia won't let their former republics in the Caucasus go their own way, and why the governments of Nigeria and Venezuela are so problematic to us.

So why fight these wars of choice over non-renewable energy resources when those are the very threats to the global climate, the identified causes of recent climate change, the fossil fuels to which we are seemingly so addicted? To give us the luxury of time - it's that simple. We don't want to be backed into a corner, forced to find alternative energy sources at a moment's notice, drawn to bail out carmakers with concepts of the market drawn straight from Henry Ford's own playbook. We want the time to develop those alternatives at our own pace, to find new sources such as ethanol biofuels and develop them to the point of failure, when we finally recognize that the costs of that particular alternative are better measured in the water required than in the money spent to produce a commodity that, if properly priced, would cost only marginally more than the same volume of water at its own proper price, which is more than the rest of your car's sticker price. Fossil fuels are a finite, exhaustible resource that are replaceable only over a period of generations, requiring centuries of inspiration and innovation to reach the other side of this divide. It is certainly prudent to consider the national security implications of dwindling energy resources that are easily obtained when we are still working out the kinks on those sources that are more difficult to bring to market.

But water, well, we're still trying to figure that one out, aren't we? Until we do, sometimes it seems as if the legislators and others with power seem to care little, until their home district runs out. Contrary to popular belief, water is not an infinite and inexhaustible resource, no how much you can seem to pump from the ground, no matter how much it snows in the Sierra one winter, no matter if Lakes Mead and Powell come back up to full capacity in the next ENSO cycle, and no matter how much Atlanta pretends to own outright every drop of water in its vicinity, Alabama and Florida and the Gulf coast fisheries be damned (a theory of ownership which, I learned today, is called the principle of absolute territorial sovereignty or, in shorthand, the Harmon doctrine). Go ahead and invoke the principles of the water cycle instead, if you like, but do your homework first: sure, the water goes around and around, eventually. That leg between the mountain recharge front and the nearest river could take ten thousand years to travel, and in the meantime the water might just refill an emptied aquifer and stop right there instead. Water evaporated from the oceans can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years before ever falling as precipitation over land again.

Water is, essentially, just as finite and exhaustible as fossil fuels, because its replacement cycle can be longer than a human lifespan in many places. Many uses of water in society preclude the recycling and re-use of the same water again further downstream, the largest of which is probably agriculture: what does not transpire to the atmosphere in the process of plant growth might percolate through the soil, taking pesticides and fertilizers and nutrients with it. Agricultural return flows are inherently tricky to estimate, and certainly not of a quality to be relied on for those in need downstream. Here's the kicker, though: while fossil fuels are on the verge of replaceable technologies, such that true energy independence is still worth pursuing if only for the implications of that self-sufficiency on national security concerns, water is irreplaceable! No other substance, except air, is so vital to life as we know it and yet still so undervalued (and, often, underpriced) in our society. And no other substance can replace water in its many and varied uses.

So that brings me to a question: which of the CNA's recent reports is more important to us as Americans, and to us as humans? I'd have to say that we can still have a sense of national security without our current portfolio of energy dependencies; we will, in time, find replacement technologies and substances to meet our needs. But climate change will alter the entire geopolitical landscape, and the fact that it may come about on a regional basis at first will only mask the larger issues to come. And yet, we cannot fight climate change, so don't ask me to say that or support your effort, because you'll lose. In our lifetimes, the global climate will evolve on a trajectory toward which it has already been set, and our best chances for national or even human security rest in deep study to find the drivers and concentrated efforts at adaptation to the changes. A sea change in energy policy is one key to such adaptability, one which is reachable in a human lifetime and can bring about a great sense of national security, which I suspect is one reason that CNA chose to address the energy issues now. Climate change, the shifts in habitats and water availability on a global scale, the mistakes that we've made and the natural processes that we've come to understand, those are the things that will require a deeper and longer effort to come to terms with, because they are not entirely (if at all) within our control, and it is only human to ignore, then resist, and then wrestle most with those pressing problems which we cannot control.