Climate change and security

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Today, a White House spokesman said that President Barack Obama hopes to support climate change legislation this year or next. The President wants a bill that would invest more in alternative energies and ensure that the U.S. is not adding to the problem of greenhouse gasses. Climate change is increasingly viewed in more than environmental and economic terms; it's also seen as a national security issue. Sharon Burke is with the Center for a New American Security in Washington. She says you can see the national security fallout of climate change all over the world, for example, on the Horn of Africa.

SHARON BURKE: If you look at what's happening in Somalia right now, it's a failed state, and there are a lot of reasons for that, but certainly the fact that there's a drought, a prolonged drought and a famine, doesn't help. It's part of the tapestry of why that state is failing. And if you look at what it means for us directly, we're conducting military missions there, and have been for several years now. We're bombing Al-Qaeda positions because Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda affiliates find situations like a failed state very hospitable. So we've been actually running military missions, bombing the interior of Somalia for years now. And also now, of course, quite famously in the papers lately, you have piracy there off the coast, in the Gulf of Aden, which is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, and we're having to put navy ships there to patrol and to help, you know, make sure that the shipping can go through there safely. So it's not always, just, �Are we gonna do humanitarian missions? How are we gonna handle disaster relief in our own country, particularly when our National Guard is very busy fighting a couple of wars?� It's also that there are direct threats to us that happen when states fail.

MULLINS: Pretty interesting. I imagine you found it pretty interesting, and you've been upsetting Osama bin Laden, and one of his videotaped messages, as surreal as they are, mention climate change.

BURKE: It is really interesting; I guess he has a low carbon footprint, so maybe he feels justified in talking about it.

MULLINS: Yeah, he was using it as kind of a recruitment tool, saying, �Look what conspicuous consumption is doing in the developed world,� and turning into an anti-Western, pro-Muslim argument.

BURKE: And I think that argument has legs, because we, the United States, and the industrialized world, and increasingly China, this is something that we've done to the world; the majority of emissions that are currently in the air came from us. But we are not the ones who are going to feel the worst effects the soonest; that'll be in Africa and in some of the island nations in the Caribbean, in the Pacific. And so this is something that's going to happen to them that they did not cause, and people are aware of that; they know where it's coming from. And the fact that we've been unable to control our own emissions � and for understandable reasons � but still, you will see resentment over time, and it will affect the United States' sort of sway in the world and our ability to wield, I guess what the Obama administration's calling �smart power.'

MULLINS: �Smart power' in what way? When you spoke about the military as first responders in many of these areas that are suffering the effects of climate change, you also say that the military is not the one responsible for setting policy. Where have we fallen short and what's happening right now?

BURKE: Well, we've fallen short at a leadership level. When it comes to something like climate change, it has to come from the White House; it has to come from the President, and the President has to make something like this a priority if this giant government that we have is actually going to do something. And for President Bush, it just wasn't a priority and he made it clear that he didn't believe that the science was settled�

MULLINS: And was the science�was it settled during his first term?

BURKE: No. Well, yes and no. There's a lot we don't know. For example, we don't know what's exactly going to happen where, when and how; we just don't. It's a�climate is such a complicated system; it's very hard to pin it all down. What we do know is that contributions from human beings are changing the climate and changing it fast, and we know more every day about how that's happening. You know, I was talking to someone the other day who said, �Yeah, but there's two sides.� Well, are there really two sides when 99% of the scientists say something's happening and 1% say it isn't.

MULLINS: What is that tell you, though? I mean, the military has been across this, but we have holdouts like that in high positions. What does that say?

BURKE: Well, it's part of the reason we haven't been able to move forward, and I think that that speaks to the fact that scientists and policymakers don't communicate very well, that there's a pretty strong disconnect there between science and the principle of uncertainty, and policy, and what you need to actually make decisions.

MULLINS: Have you seen that elsewhere, Sharon? And do you understand why that happens now?

BURKE: I do, and I think it's pervasive, and it's for a variety of different reasons. There's�it's different intellectual cultures. I don't see that this should necessarily be a problem. Certainly in the military community�you know, we're appropriating billions of dollars based on what we believe the future threat may be to this country. It may or may not be. I mean, we're still flying a lot of systems in the air and fielding systems on the ground that were designed to fight the Soviet Union. Well, it didn't work out that way, but it was a reasonable, you know, understanding of the future. So, you know, uncertainty is okay, but scientists are very risk-averse in that, because they get burned, because people say, �Well, wait a minute. You said in the '70's that there was going to be an ice age. So were you lying then, are you lying now?� And to them, that's not how science works; we learn more, we understand better, and when we know more, sometimes the story changes. So, it's a complicated set of problems, but for the military, it's okay to have uncertainty; we can actually plan against that. But when they won't actually tell us what they know, or what they think is going to happen, then we can't plan against that.

MULLINS: Sharon Burke, thank you.

BURKE: Well, thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be talking to you.

MULLINS: Sharon Burke is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.