Climate Change Poses Threat to National Security

Problem Is More Serious Than Just Caring for the Earth

Parched Earth: The dried shores of Lake Gruyere in Switzerland, affected by continous drought.
Getty Images
Parched Earth: The dried shores of Lake Gruyere in Switzerland, affected by continous drought.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published March 11, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.

If you missed this one, don’t beat yourself up. Hardly anybody noticed it. It was just another one of those calls for action to combat climate change, an “open letter” to the president and Congress from about three dozen public figures. We’ve seen hundreds of these things by now. After a while, they all look the same.

If there was anything different about this one to merit a second look, it might be the fact that it didn’t mention healing the planet or saving God’s creatures. Instead, it described climate change in starkly pragmatic terms as a “serious threat to American national security interests.” And it spelled out why.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the 38 signers were a collection of some of the country’s most distinguished authorities on national security, including nine retired generals and admirals, a former CIA director, both heads of the 9/11 Commission, 15 former senators and House members (10 Republicans, five Democrats) plus former secretaries of state, defense and other cabinet members from the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and both Bush administrations, father and son.

Given that kind of heft, you might think it would have gotten some respectful press coverage. But no. One article at Politico.com and a handful at obscure specialty websites. That’s it.

The silence is particularly odd when you consider the fact that the letter comes amid a virtual barrage of new warnings from intelligence, defense and other public agencies about the security dangers posed by climate change. In the past four months, at least four lengthy scientific reports have been published that detail various aspects of the threat — one in November, one in December and two in February. Three were produced or funded by arms of the U.S. intelligence community. The fourth came from an unusual consortium of conservative and liberal think tanks.

All four walk the reader in varying degrees of detail through scientific evidence of changing climate over time due to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. From there, each proceeds to look at evidence linking the changes in climate to increased incidence of drought, flood, storm, wildfire and other extreme weather events in particular regions. All of them connect the extreme weather to food and water shortages, epidemics, natural disasters and other crises. These in turn lead to regional conflicts, government instability and disruptive migration.

“If we have difficulty figuring out how to deal with immigration today, look at the prospects for the glacial retreats in the Andes,” former CIA director James Woolsey said at a February 25 press conference where the security letter was released, according to a press release. “If that starts to go away, we will have millions upon millions of southern neighbors hungry, thirsty, with crops failing and looking for some place in the world they can go.”

Three of the four new reports use the available evidence to project likely future outcomes around the world, in order to guide U.S. national security policy planning. The fourth, “The Arab Spring and Climate Change,” zeroes in on one region. It examines in detail how crop failures in other parts of the world, particularly during the Russian heat wave in the summer of 2010, caused food shortages that helped spark the wave of unrest known as the Arab Spring. Some readers will recall that I wrote about the climate connection in February 2011, after Hosni Mubarak fell. The new report, jointly published by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center and the Center for Climate and Security, fleshes it out in far greater detail than I could. It’s worth reading.

Of the remaining three reports, two were sponsored by the CIA and conducted by outside groups of scientists — one by the government’s National Research Council, the other by a group led by scientists from Harvard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The third was conducted by the federal government’s National Intelligence Council.

The Harvard-NOAA study, “Climate Extremes: Recent Trends with Implications for National Security,” focuses mainly on the science of climate change and the evidence of climate-related weather extremes that are occurring in various regions of the world. The regional patterns are familiar if you follow the news — battles over scarce water in the Middle East, heat waves that set the Russian steppes on fire, monster monsoons causing floods and rage in Pakistan. You recognize them because they’re all trouble spots. That’s the point.

The other CIA-commissioned study, “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis,” spells out the human and political impact of changing climate patterns, from flooding and extreme heat to famine and epidemics. Examples include floods in Thailand in 2011, which disrupted global auto-parts supplies, and water shortages due to changed river flow that have aggravated tensions in Kyrgyzstan, Congo and Colombia. This study is the driest of the four, but it’s the most important, because it lays out detailed recommendations for U.S. security policy.

The fourth, “Global Trends 2030,” published in December by the federal government’s National Intelligence Council, looks at what it calls “megatrends and tectonic shifts” that will impact world events in coming decades, both positively and negatively. Three of the four aren’t climate related: “individual empowerment” due to a rising global middle class; “diffusion of power” among nations like China and non-state actors like crime and terror syndicates; and “demographic patterns,” mainly aging and urbanization. Climate change, the fourth megatrend, is manifested in the “nexus” of food, water and energy. By 2030 these will either be sufficient and well distributed or scarce and hotly fought over. The outcome depends on choices we make right now.

That’s what makes the silence surrounding the former security officials’ letter so frustrating. They’re familiar with the research. They know the stakes. They’re aware, they note, that President Obama plans to address the crisis through executive action rather than wait for Congress. It’s not enough. He needs to speak out. EPA regulations may reduce American emissions, but they won’t stabilize bread prices in Egypt or hold back the floods in Pakistan. And those are American crises.

“The effects of climate change in the world’s most vulnerable regions present a serious threat to American national security interests,” the officials write. “As a matter of risk management, the United States must work with international partners, public and private, to address this impending crisis. Potential consequences are undeniable, and the cost of inaction, paid for in lives and valuable U.S. resources, will be staggering. Washington must lead on this issue now.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com



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