The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently held a hearing on climate and energy legislation focusing on an aspect of global warming that so far has received surprisingly little public attention: national security.
While most people associate global warming with droughts, rising sea levels, declining food production, species extinction and habitat destruction, fewer connect these impacts to increasing instability around the globe and the resulting threats to our national security. But the connection – and the threat it poses – is real and growing.
And while many in the press and public have not yet focused on these threats, the U.S. military most certainly has.
For years, the military has been studying how climate can impact its operations, its manpower, its bases and its mission.
Even when its studies were not under the auspices of “global warming,” the military has long known the importance to its mission of understanding environmental conditions — whether it was gathering data on how El Nino weather patterns affect Naval activities or how ice thickness in the Arctic impacts acoustic communications.
In 2007, a blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines issued a study warning that climate change poses “grave implications for our national security,” comparing it to the nuclear threat of the Cold War and the threats of terrorism in more recent years.
Among other things, the panel concluded that climate change will cause food and water shortages, the spread of diseases and massive migration around the world. Such conditions will likely trigger political instability, the panel said, and “foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism, and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies.”
And the panel also concluded that the United States will not be able to ignore these developments: “The U.S. may be drawn more frequently into these situations, either alone or with allies, to help provide stability before conditions worsen and are exploited by extremists.”
Among the recommendations made by the panel was for the United States to help prevent the devastating impacts climate change will have on food, water and other natural resources around the world. And, the panel said, the United States must act now.
“We seem to be standing by and, frankly, asking for perfectness in science,” retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, one of the authors of the report, said. “We never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”
As a retired brigadier general who served in the U.S. Army for 32 years before joining The Nature Conservancy, and who was privileged to serve with some of the members of the panel, I know their conclusions and recommendations were not made lightly, and that the judgments reflected by the panel resulted from their own highly demanding standards for hard data and good science.
I also know that the military deeply appreciates the need to assess and analyze emerging threats to national security years and decades into the future and take the kinds of actions and make the kind of investments needed now both to minimize those threats and to be better prepared to respond to those threats as they emerge — whether that response includes the development of advanced weapons systems and new tactics and techniques for warfare or taking the actions we need to take now to mitigate the degree of climate change and be better able to deal with its consequences.
I also know that, as the organization that most directly bears the costs and burdens of war, the military deeply understands that preventing conflict and addressing the conditions that lead to conflict is far better — and far cheaper in every sense of the word — than letting those threats emerge unaddressed.
Legislation now moving through Congress calls for policy support and funding to help moderate the scale of climate change and to help the United States and nations and peoples around the globe adapt to and survive the impacts of climate change — and in turn lessening the extent and severity of future threats to international peace and stability and our own national security.
By helping protect the world’s natural resources, the United States can and should become a leader in the global fight against climate change while also protecting our own critical national security interests.
Congress should listen to our military leaders and join the global fight against climate change now, before it is too late.
Brigadier General (retired) Bob Barnes joined The Nature Conservancy staff in December 2002 as the senior policy advisor, Department of Defense. His duties include coordinating all relationships between the Conservancy and elements of DoD, with special emphasis on cooperative programs that facilitate military readiness activities while at the same time enhancing conservation programs on and in the vicinity of military facilities.
(Image: Troops boarding a military transport plane. Credit: U.S. Army, used under a Creative Commons license.)