Military, Policy Experts See Climate Change as National Security Issue
Experts appearing before a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Tuesday told legislators that climate change should be treated as a grave national security threat, with retired Navy Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn saying “climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States of America.”
The hearing, entitled Climate Change and Global Security: Challenges, Threats, and Diplomatic Opportunities, was chaired by Senator John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts with John Lugar as the ranking minority member on the committee. Witnesses on the hearing panel included former senator John Warner of Virginia; Sharon Burke, vice president of the Center for a New American Security; retired Navy Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, a member of the Center for Naval Analysis Advisory Board; and retired Navy Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, president of the American Security Project.
Framing the debate
John Warner, who co-authored last year’s failed climate bill, urged the committee to title legislation focused on energy, national security, and diplomacy to help push through the fear and confusion in the public discourse over the climate issue:
“All of those things are needed to pull this thing through the depth of the fear and concern that lingers on this issue now in our public. We’ve got to convince them,” Warner said.
Warner launched a public speaking tour last week for a Pew Environmental Group campaign in an effort to re-frame the climate debate and help clear the fog, largely sowed by special interests intent on keeping the public in a state of doubt and confusion over climate change.
Warner then suggested that the committee take a “central role” in helping to craft a climate bill, characterizing the committee’s work as the “axle around which all other parts should rotate.” One principal reason for such a lead role by the Foreign Relations Committee, said Warner, is that without similar commitments to address the issue from India and China, the expectation of public support for U.S. emissions cuts will be a “lost cause.”
Failed states and complex threats
All members of the panel expressed concern on the complex nature of the threat climate change poses for national security. More frequent natural disasters, drought, rising sea levels, pandemics, and resource security will stretch the military’s ability to respond while contributing to increased instability in volatile regions around the world, likely leading to more failed states.
Sharon Burke of the Center for a New American Security points to Somalia as an early example of a failed state, disintegrating into chaos and violence in the face of climate-related stresses like severe drought and water shortages. As a result, the U.S. military has been forced to deal with piracy, a growing threat of terrorism, humanitarian relief, and helping neighboring countries avoid a similar decline.
Retired Vice Admiral Gunn told the committee that climate change will “change the why – why America provides aid or goes on the attack, why we have allies or enemies. Will change the how – dwindling water supplies will impact land operations and sea level rise threatens coastal bases.”
And while the threats of climate change may not be “100% certain,” Gunn emphasized that “in the military, by the time threats are 100% clear, something bad will have already happened on the battlefield. We can’t wait to act.”
The Pentagon was directed by congress in 2008 to consider climate change in its contingency planning, a process ongoing with the current Quadrennial Defense Review. Previous studies done for the Defense Department have considered the consequences of worst-case scenarios (pdf) in terms of national security, yet the issue of climate change as it relates to national security has been “largely absent from the debate,” said Senator Kerry, “Today’s hearing’s purpose is to put it at the front and center, where it belongs.”
With the military’s “public embrace” of the threats posed by climate change, the support of the American public to take substantive action will hopefully follow. Burke told the Committee that “poll after poll, the military is the most trusted institution in this country.”
While supporting the efforts of the committee, and acknowledging the need for public understanding of the climate issue for long-term success of U.S. policy, Warner cautioned that lawmakers cannot wait for public acceptance to take action, saying the time is now for Congress to lead: “I just think that this is the time Congress has got to forcefully lead. We can’t follow the public; we’ve got to lead it.”
Statements and testimony from hearing participants (all pdf)
John Kerry (opening statement)
Richard Lugar (opening statement)
Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn
Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn
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