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National Security and Old-Fashioned Natural Resources

Here’s Sharon Burke, vice president of Center for a New American Security, who just got effusive praise from former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), and who’s presenting a panel on those old atavistic security questions about natural resources. The idea of climate change, for instance, as a national security issue has been much derided, but it’ll seem a lot less crazy during the Water Wars of 2045. Welcome to Natural Security.

“It’s hard to separate out energy and climate change and how it connects to water and land and biodiversity and other issues,” Burke says. There are, of course, national security implications for resource use: “consumption and consequences,” even if this stuff doesn’t makes it into the President’s Daily Brief. The National Intelligence Council’s 2025 project predicts scarcity, creating “conflict on a geostrategic level,” alongside increased natural disasters as the result of climate change.

Look at the demand for materials from increased cellphone use (400 million more Indians and 670 million more Chinese people have cellphones than did in 2000): tantalum, indium, titanium dioxide, and other rare-earth elements. A ton of them are located in China, Burke says, placing the Chinese in a very commanding geostrategic position. Congo has the tantalum, also known as coltan, and it’s deeply unstable. “And we don’t know a whole lot about the global supply chain and how vulnerable it is.”

Climate change. More “cyclonic storms of intensity” like Hurricane Katrina. “It may drive conflict. It may drive migration. It will certainly drive disaster relief.” The species that die out take with them “the ecosystem we depend on. How that’s going to affect our security is an issue we have to explore.”

Burke links natural security to Afghanistan. Eighty percent of Afghanistan is agriculture-dependent. The wars, for 30 years, have degraded Afghanistan’s bio-infrastructure, “and the land is barren right now,” and such privation will render difficult any plan from the Obama administration to alleviate the stresses on the Afghan people. Restoring its natural resources is “critical to restoring security.”

“These are security issues right now,” Burke says, “and they’re bound to get worse as climate change proceeds. … We can either deal with it now and build in resilience or deal with it later and it’ll be much more difficult.”

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