Having spent more than 30 years in the US Marine Corps, I know what constitutes a national security threat. Climate change, caused in large part by the carbon pollution we dump into our air, presents risks to the safety of both our nation and our world at large. The threats of climate change include extreme weather, rising sea levels, reduced military capacity, and conditions that can enable worldwide violence and perpetuate terrorism. 

To address this challenge, we’ll need to both prepare for the effects of climate change and reduce the pollution that is causing it. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Power Plan proposal is set to be finalized shortly, our country has an unprecedented opportunity to protect itself from the national security threats imposed on us by climate change.  

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The EPA’s plan sets the first ever federal limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, encourages investment in clean energy development, and helps boost energy efficiency measures. It’s vital we seize this opportunity, which also provides incentives and flexibility for states to meet their carbon reduction targets while creating jobs and lowering electricity bills at the same time. We are at risk now more than ever before. 

Last year was officially ranked as the warmest year on record, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. While we cannot suggest direct causations between climate change and extreme weather events, there is substantial evidence that indicates strong correlations between the two.

As temperatures become warmer, more water evaporates. Warmer air is able to carry greater amounts of precipitation, which increases the potential for extreme storms and other natural disasters. 

One of the biggest experiences of my career was in fact related to an extreme storm. I was the commanding general of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island in South Carolina when Hurricane Floyd threatened us in 1999. I had to evacuate the base, a decision made in part because the base was only fifteen feet above sea level. And that touches on another threat posed by climate change: rising sea levels.  

Sea levels are rising, and projections estimate that they will continue to do so at increasing rates. By the end of the century, global sea levels could rise up to three feet or more, depending on the rate of ice sheets melting. Almost 50 percent of the population of the U.S. lives within 50 miles of the coastline, and almost 40 percent of the population lives in counties that are directly on the shoreline. It’s estimated that 150 million more people per year will experience flooding in 2075 if sea levels rise an average 21 inches. 

Dozens of U.S. military bases are at risk from rising sea levels, which can also lead to mass displacements, loss of life, disruption to food production, famine, and more. And who will be expected to respond to these calamities? The military, of course, in addition to other local and national response units.

 

When Hurricane Sandy hit several years ago, tens of thousands of military personnel were activated. 

The military is often a key response force for events that are caused at least in part by climate change. And thus climate change affects the military’s overall ability to defend the country. While busy responding to natural disasters, the military has less capacity to focus on other national security threats like terrorism and more international issues. 

On that note, terrorism and other forms of global violence are also impacted by climate change. A Department of Defense report released last year explains how water scarcity exacerbated by climate change can lead to sharp cost increases for food. Resource competition puts a heavy burden on governments, societies, and economies, which act as “threat multipliers” that aggravate political stability, poverty, and social tensions – all conditions that enable and encourage violence and different forms of terrorist activity. 

Both at home and abroad, the effects of climate change create severe threats to our nation’s security. However, it is a threat that can be contained and reduced significantly. That is why we need to prioritize reducing our carbon pollution, persuade other countries to do the same, and support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which presents an unprecedented opportunity for us to take climate change in our own hands and mitigate the dangers it poses. 

Cheney is the chief executive officer of the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board.