Op-Ed: Climate Change Threatens America’s National Security

Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, of the American Security Project, says rising sea levels and extreme drought could be just as dangerous as terrorists and crises.

U.S. Army National Guard soldiers continued to conduct door-to-door searches on September 12, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana, weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Jun 9, 2013
General Cheney is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Security Project.

Climate change is becoming one of America’s most critical national security issues of the 21st century. Scientists are sounding an alarm that gets louder every year: The burning of fossil fuels releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, strengthening the greenhouse effect and changing the Earth’s climate. There are many uncertainties, but they are about the effects and the rate of climate change, not its causes.

With the world continuing to burn fossil fuels at a reckless pace, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the highest it has been in over 800,000 years. As a result, average global temperatures have already increased 1.3-degrees F over the last century, and without major reductions in emissions, we may be heading towards an additional 4- to 11-degrees F temperature rise by 2100.

The effects of this temperature change are severe. Climate change is usually presented as an environmental problem, but the consequences—and the consequences of the consequences—present real national security threats to the United States.

First, climate change generates new security risks around the world. Although climate change may not directly cause violent conflict, it acts as “an accelerant of instability” or a “threat multiplier.” That is, it makes conflict more likely, or intensifies conflict already underway. For example, climate change wreaked havoc on Mali, a poor, dry Saharan nation with an unstable government. As rivers dried up and agricultural production suffered, Al-Qaeda-linked militants capitalized on instability and overthrew the government in 2012. We cannot say that climate change has caused conflict in Mali, but it clearly multiplied the already existing threats.

Another example is the record-breaking wildfires in Russia in 2010 that led to a severe shortage of grain. Russia restricted grain exports in response, leading to a spike in food prices worldwide. High food prices exacerbated discontent in many Middle Eastern countries, which fanned the flames in the months leading up to the “Arab Spring.” Fragile governments around the world are at risk of environmental catastrophes—a prolonged drought, or a sudden flood—and climate change increases the probability that such events occur.

Second, climate change is already creating new missions for America’s armed forces, increasing the burden on the U.S. military. The Marines deployed to Staten Island in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and will be forced to take on a larger responsibility for disaster relief as severe weather increases. Allocating more resources to disaster relief takes away resources from the military’s primary mission of ensuring the nation’s security from external threats.

The military is already making plans for additional disaster response scenarios around the world. For example, in the 2013 “Cobra Gold” exercises, an annual joint U.S-Thailand military training operation, the U.S. and dozens of other nations conducted disaster relief exercises to prepare for future environmental disasters. In the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commanding officer of U.S. Pacific Command, recently testified before Congress that climate change will be one of the biggest long-term security threats in the Pacific region.

Third, climate change directly threatens U.S. military installations at home and abroad. The U.S. military manages property in all 50 U.S. states as well as 40 other countries around the world. These buildings—valued at $590 billion—face serious risks from the effects of climate change like sea level rise and extreme weather. For example, the island of Diego Garcia, a key logistics hub for U.S. and British forces in the Indian Ocean, is only one meter above sea level. Rising sea levels and storms threaten this strategically vital outpost.

Finally, climate change threatens our homeland security. Rising sea levels threaten coastlines with flooding and more powerful storm surges. Floods, wildfires, and storms pose dangers to human life and put critical infrastructure—roads, bridges, power plants—at risk. Drought and new pest outbreaks in the Midwest and Great Plains, our nation’s breadbasket, undermine America’s agricultural sector. New diseases threaten public health. The Department of Homeland Security, an agency created to deal with border security and terrorism, is having to respond to an increasing number of climate disasters. Dealing with a “new normal” of frequent disasters will increasingly strain DHS’s resources.

Other nations are also looking at the security challenges of climate change. Over 70 percent of all nations (for which there is data) view climate change as a threat to their national security. Many of these nations have plans for climate change enshrined in their defense strategies.

The U.S. military’s overarching mission is to keep Americans safe by being able to fight and win America’s wars, and—perhaps more importantly—to prevent conflict from breaking out. Climate change is making this mission increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, climate change is not a problem that the military can solve; only a global commitment to reduce emissions will solve this problem. Until then, military planners will be forced to deal with ever-worsening consequences. Policymakers must rise to the challenge.

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