Climate Change Is a National Security Issue

If you’re concerned about national security, then you’d better be concerned about climate change.

That’s clear from letters that a bipartisan group of 18 senior retired military officers and national security officials sent May 8 to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The letters urged them to lead in addressing the security implications of climate change.

The retired officers wrote: “We know that climate change poses strategically significant risks to US national security, directly impacting our critical infrastructure and increasing the likelihood of humanitarian disasters, state failure, and conflict. The Department of Defense and the intelligence community have been aware of this “threat multiplier...”

The letters urged Mattis and Tillerson to “get ahead of this challenge before it becomes unmanageable. We hope that you consider such a partnership as an important step in preparing the United States for this new geostrategic reality.”

Mattis doesn’t need much of a sales job. He has been aware of the threats posed by climate change for a number of years and recently stated, “...Climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response.”

According to a report from ProPublica, noted by The Washington Examiner, Mattis told Democratic senators that climate change is real and "can be a driver of instability."

He elaborated in answers to questions from senators following his confirmation hearing:

“If confirmed,” Mattis told the committee, “I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects…. I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness." 

Retired Brigadier General Gerald Galloway is on the advisory board of the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), which sent the letters to Mattis and Tillerson, and he spelled out the challenges during a National Public Radio interview March 19: “If you can't get your aircraft off an airfield because it's under water, if you can't land troops in a foreign country because the beach you thought was going to be something you could land on is no longer there, then it's a national security issue. If our allies are having problems in their own country as a result of such things as drought - where there's instability in the country - instability breeds conflict. And conflict is what puts our forces at risk, and we don't want that to happen. So we've got to be prepared for this, and we've got to be prepared to assist at home and abroad.”

“While the United States has made progress, the rest of the world generally takes this far more seriously than we do,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the chairwoman of American Security Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank that focuses on national security issues. “They see it in a more direct way. In places like Sudan, prolonged droughts in rural areas are shifting the population into cities and worsening unemployment and crowding. We need to realize that climate change is more than a climate issue. Our military leaders, including all of our joint chiefs of staff, have said that this is a national security issue. The economic and social destabilization from climate change in many parts of the developing world breeds discontent and is creating fertile grounds for organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.” 

In a May 22 paper, CCS applauded NATO’s attention to climate change while offering recommendations for how the alliance can more thoroughly address climate-related risks to the NATO mission. The report, titled The Alliance in a Changing Climate: Bolstering the NATO Mission Through Climate Preparedness said:

“Climate change will adversely affect the future security environment and intersect with core NATO activities. It has the potential to change the context in which NATO operates dramatically, and will create risks that increase in both likelihood and severity. There is more certainty about this threat than others in NATO’s future. With so much potential for disruption, climate change should be treated as a strategic concern for the Alliance – a multiplier of existing risks to NATO, including on its eastern and southern borders.”

...All three of NATO’s essential core tasks as defined in the 2010 Strategic Concept – collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security – would be supported by the Alliance fully incorporating climate risk into NATO institutions.” 

Like Mattis, Tillerson acknowledges that the climate is changing. He supports a carbon fee, which is earning more and more support. Many backers prefer it to other options because it relies on the free market to solve the problem. And those who usually lean toward the regulatory approach realize that under President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that is no longer an option. Since a carbon fee has the potential to generate a massive revenue stream, it can serve as the pay-for needed to cut taxes without running up the national debt. Thus, it addresses two major national problems.