By Amy Harder
The United Kingdom fully supports the U.S. Defense Department’s recent actions on climate change, the U.K.’s first-ever climate security czar said in an interview last week. The DOD’s decision to include climate change in its Quadrennial Defense Review for the first time is an important step highlighting the security risks associated with climate change, Rear Adm. Neil Morisetti told NationalJournal.com while in Washington visiting with lawmakers and Defense officials.
But he also pointed out that U.K. has benefited from something the United States is lacking: a bipartisan climate bill, which became law in 2008 and calls for greenhouse gas emissions to be cut 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. “Undoubtedly, having that bipartisan support from a political perspective has helped in the United Kingdom,” said Morisetti, who assumed this newly created position in September. Edited excerpts from the March 11 interview follow.
NationalJournal.com also explored the climate security issue in more detail in this story published last month.
NJ: What are the main ways that climate change affects national security and stability around the world?
Morisetti: I would fully support the view that was expressed in the CNA think tank… report in 2007: that it is unlikely that climate change on its is going to start a conflict, but it could be the tipping point or the catalyst of conflict, because you’re just heaping more stress on top of people who are already suffering from stress.
I think it’s one of the areas we need to study, actually, to get a better understanding of how people behave under these sorts of stressful conditions, and where in some instances they may find out ways of adapting and avoiding it, and in other cases they may decide they’ve got to move — either within their own country or to another country. There’s one of the dangers — mass, unplanned migration into countries that themselves can’t cope. Or it may be that at the end of the day, they’re going to feed their families, there’s no alternative livelihood, and they’re willing to consider illegal activity to do that.
NJ: What position in the U.S. government would be the equivalent of your position in the U.K.? Would it be State Department Climate Change Envoy Todd Stern?
Morisetti: No, it’s not Todd Stern. We have an equivalent to Todd Stern. By virtue of the scale of defense in the United States, it’s not necessarily one person… For example, in the Navy, [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary] Roughead has an admiral who looks after climate change and an admiral who looks after energy security.
But by virtue of the scale of U.K. forces, it’s easier to do it with one person. So I engage with a number of people. And it’s also not just the Navy — Air Force, Marine Corps, the Army, and also State and others, including policymakers, to try and get this factored into our understanding of what it means. Because at the end of the day we need to understand how it affects our missions and tasks, whether it be in humanitarian aid after an extreme weather event either at home or abroad. It could be conflict resolution; just as easy, it could be in part conflict prevention activity as you develop resilience and capacity of countries to cope with the stresses.
Because the fact is that where climate change is likely to have the greatest effect is also the parts of the world where people are suffering from stress from resource shortages, health issues, demographics, perhaps weak government, fiscal challenges. And those countries are where we’ll probably see climate change having the greatest effect. They also happen to be the regions through which the world’s trade routes run. So we’re all affected, because we all import, for example, through the Horn of Africa — areas that may well be affected, and where our energy supply comes from.
NJ: How do you think the U.S. government has done compared to the U.K. on this issue? Do you think the United States is doing enough?
Morisetti: Certainly from a DOD perspective, they’re very much engaged in this, in talking about what it will mean. As a nation? Each nation will determine what it feels it can do. And I’m firmly of the view that it’s not for other nations to dictate to countries. What we can do, though, and one of the things I’ve been doing here, is sharing experiences from our own country and explaining why in the U.K. we’ve gone down the route we’ve gone.
NJ: What do you think the difference is between the United States and the U.K. in terms of acting on climate change? As you’ve said, the U.K. has already passed a bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions. What is hindering the United States’ progress on this?
Morisetti: That’s a very good question. I think one of the factors is — there is a degree of concern that this could further exacerbate the challenges on the economy.
NJ: It seems that’s something every country is facing right now, though.
Morisetti: But when we were going through that in the U.K., actually, we weren’t in a recession period. And we’d had reports from the likes of Lord Stern, who had explained to us that if we did take action, the cost perhaps in GDP [would be] 1 or 2 percent; if we didn’t take action, it could be 5 to 20 percent. And, also there are opportunities — undoubtedly, having that bipartisan support from a political perspective has helped in the United Kingdom and in Europe.
NJ: What do you think Congress can learn from the U.K. government on climate change, and particularly national security?
Morisetti: What I would say is that this is an issue that is not going to go away. It’s an issue that we need to address, we need to understand more about. We need to develop the capability to monitor and see how this is happening. And we need to take action. And action is a mixture of adaptation to ensure we have the military capabilities in order to deliver the national security, and it is about mitigation and playing our part in the armed forces to reduce the future threat.
NJ: Looking at climate change legislation here in the United States, do you think discussing it in the national security realm could build momentum or raise awareness for the issue?
Morisetti: It’s important that when you address an issue like climate change, energy security, that you look at all the aspects. And you need to have a complete debate. Therefore, if you were not to factor in the national security implications, then you would be remiss.
NJ: Some say that DOD should not be considering climate change an issue when we’re in two wars and are already strapped for resources.
Morisetti: I would fully support the fact that the current operations must be the highest priority. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to look to the future as well in order to ensure that there is not further conflict, or that if conflict is potentially there, that we are prepared. So it’s one of these things where you’ve got to do both things.