If rising waters and violent storms whipped into oblivion a key U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia, would such a catastrophe qualify as a national security crisis or as a climate change scourge?
These what-if scenarios help illustrate why any plans to tackle the nation's "energy security" challenges also require a sound strategy for averting the devastating impact of climate change, experts caution.
"The temptation today is to address oil dependence and climate change as separate issues, but that would be a serious mistake," says Sharon Burke, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The base on the Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean is a symbolic reminder of the constant U.S. military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere to protect its access to oil supplies. The island's potential vulnerability to the ravages of climate change also demonstrates why weaning the United States from fossil fuels is more than just a security problem, Burke says at a Washington D.C. conference.
Under the rubric of "energy security," policy experts are making a case that as long as the United States continues to consume 22 million barrels of oil per day--60 percent of which is imported the nation will remain at the mercy of hostile oil suppliers, unstable and corrupt regimes. They also note that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida view America's reliance on dwindling oil supplies as an Achilles' heel and a source of asymmetric power.
"This vulnerability will increase as more of the oil falls into fewer hands with a high concentration of reserves in the Middle East," Burke says.
Much of the world's oil supply travels through the Strait of Hormuz--the only passage to the open ocean for large areas of the petroleum-exporting Persian Gulf states. It is estimated that 20 percent of the world's oil supply passes through the strait, making it a notoriously precarious chokepoint that requires a U.S. military presence. Analysts cite this as evidence of the vulnerability of the energy supply system.
The use of military forces to protect sources of energy is not new, "but we didn't always call it energy security," says Frederick C. Smith, vice president of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Today, few people would disagree that there is no military solution to our energy challenges."
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