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As climate change threatens world peace, Japan must face up to risk

Suga needs to work with Biden on security strategies that include global warming

Japan Self-Defense Forces members trudge through a flooded road in Kawagoe, near Tokyo, in 2019. (Photo by Kei Higuchi) 

TOKYO -- Almost a decade ago, then-President Barack Obama's White House cited climate change as a "threat multiplier" to both American and international security.

This assertion in the administration's Quadrennial Defense Review was met with skepticism by some in the Japanese government and Self-Defense Forces. Given Japan's exposure to threats from the military buildups by China and Russia, as well as North Korea's nuclear development, that reaction was understandable.

This correspondent, too, wondered why the U.S. was talking about climate change instead of focusing on conventional military threats.

In keeping with its priorities, the Obama administration let China gain a military foothold in the South China Sea as Washington focused on building cooperation with Beijing against climate change during the president's second term. Partly due to this bitter experience, some within Japan's government have reacted coolly to President Joe Biden's embrace of climate change as a priority.

But the time has come for a rethink. Putting aside the question of whether the Obama administration's views were correct at the time, Japan should treat climate change as a serious security threat. Extreme weather is already undermining global stability.

Climate change will be high on the agenda Friday during the first face-to-face meeting between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Washington. The urgency is clear: Japan will be seen as a laggard among major countries if it does not share the awareness, increasingly common in Western capitals, that continued global warming will cause a deterioration in global security.

Climate change will rank high on the agenda when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, and President Joe Biden meet in Washington on Friday. (Source photos by Uichiro Kasai and Reuters) 

On March 9, shortly after taking the post, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared: "Climate change presents a growing threat to U.S. national security interests and defense objectives." Austin ordered Defense Department officials to quickly assess the impact of global warming on security. They are due to present their conclusions to Biden by late June. It is said that the Biden administration will factor climate change into its military strategy and risk analysis in the future.

Europe is responding to the U.S. move. NATO's draft reform plan for 2030, unveiled Feb. 17, ranks coping with climate change as one of the alliance's primary missions, as well as dealing with cyberattacks and the military buildups by China and Russia.

What is behind this renewed emphasis by Western countries on tackling climate change?

A risk analysis published last year by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), a nonpartisan U.S. think tank, raised alarm bells. The CCS predicts that if average global temperatures rise by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, the consequences by 2050 will include droughts, floods and rising sea levels -- creating a flood of migrants and refugees while intensifying geopolitical tensions.

Vulnerable states would collapse, while terrorist organizations and extremists would proliferate. Food shortages and competition for resources would intensify, and confrontation among big powers in the Indo-Pacific region would escalate, the think tank forecasts.

Western security experts who study climate change say these predictions are not exaggerated -- and in fact are already happening. Syria was hit by some of the worst droughts in several centuries from the late 1990s to the early 2010s. According to experts on the Middle East, the droughts contributed to the collapse of security in the country and to a civil war that has killed about 400,000 people.

Climate Action Network South Asia and others added to the grim predictions last December. If global warming progresses, the environmental group says, between 34 million and 63 million people in South Asia could be forced to migrate internally or abroad by 2050 due to droughts and loss of coastal land.

These are just a few examples of the potential disasters brought on by climate change. If the predictions are correct, armed forces worldwide will be called upon to deal with them, undermining their ability to defend their nations.

According to American media reports, U.S. Air Force bases in the state of Florida and elsewhere suffered several billion dollars in hurricane damage in 2018. Naval Station Norfolk in the state of Virginia, which serves aircraft carriers, and U.S. Marine Corps bases routinely suffer flood damage.

Japan faces similar risks. In January, Germanwatch, a German think tank, compiled rankings of countries most affected by climate change in 2019. Japan ranked fourth after Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Bahamas, owing to a number of powerful typhoons and a record-setting summer heat wave. Japan topped the ranking in 2018.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces have been called on to help disaster-hit areas with increasing frequency. A total of 1.19 million SDF members were sent to disaster zones in fiscal 2018. The following year, 1.06 million SDF members were dispatched.

That number has exceeded 1 million only four times since such records were first kept in 1977. Fiscal 2019 marked the first time the number topped 1 million for two years in a row.

These disaster relief missions are a considerable burden for the Self-Defense Forces, which have total personnel of around 240,000. Important training exercises have been canceled to carry out disaster relief, raising concerns about the effect on security.

"My feeling was that we were forced to divert somewhere between 10% and 20% of activities to disaster response," said Katsutoshi Kawano, who served as chief of the SDF Joint Staff between 2014 and 2019, looking back on his time as the top uniformed officer.

"Although we take all possible measures to avoid any problems, we will have no choice but to worry about the impact on reconnaissance and surveillance activities if disasters continue to increase," Kawano said.

Western militaries face similar woes. Japan needs to share information and analysis with countries and include risks from climate change in its security strategy.

There are skeptics over the risks of global warming, including in the U.S. Even so, full preparations should be made quickly. When nature goes on a rampage, its destructive force dwarfs that of artillery or missiles.

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