Energy & Environment

Climate change is a clear and present danger to US security

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Being president of the United States is a job that can be about life and death. Donald Trump learned that first-hand recently as the first American serviceman died under his watch. This is a reality of being president, as is the security threat posed by a changing planet.

When President Donald Trump became the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces on Jan. 20, he accepted the responsibility to defend the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Climate change is high on that list.

{mosads}As President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will soon learn, it’s high atop of the list of every head of state, from Europe to Asia, and in critical clubs like the G20 and NATO.


Indeed, it’s also high on the priority list of many within their own party. Just last week, veteran Republicans with years of collective experience in international diplomacy, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and George P. Shultz, publicly called for a carbon tax that would give an incentive to U.S. companies to find the most efficient ways to reduce their carbon emissions.

Even if it might be convenient, there are no alternative facts when it comes to climate change. The science is clear and irrefutable — climate change is a clear and present danger to the United States. We know already that it is among the key forces displacing populations, leading to massive migrations that are straining stability and fuelling terrorism.

We know that our coastal military bases and stations are losing ground to rising seas. We know that food and water shortages will raise tensions and increase violence. These impacts will disproportionately affect already volatile regions, worsening existing problems like resource scarcity, poverty, corruption, weak governance, and social unrest.

That’s why climate change is what the military calls a “threat multiplier.” It makes bad situations worse and makes troubled regions downright dangerous.

I’m not speaking off base here. The U.S. military, whose service to our country transcends party politics, has recognized climate change as a major threat to security for more than a decade, starting with a ground-breaking report I spearheaded with a dozen of our nation’s finest former military leaders, called the CNA Military Advisory Board.  

Since then, our military and intelligence community have acted and planned accordingly. Our country’s entire national security establishment has been clear in its warnings. In fact, last year’s National Security Strategy elevated climate change as a top-level strategic risk, alongside terrorism, economic crises, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Our foreign allies understand this as well. At an upcoming meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Germany, Secretary Tillerson will hear just how serious our partners are about combating the climate threat. World leaders are seeing a destabilized planet characterised by terrorism, waves of migrants fleeing ISIL, and mixed messages from traditional superpowers.

This is a message that will be echoed at the Munich Security Conference, one of the world’s most important annual gatherings of security experts, which Vice President Mike Pence is expected to attend.

Having spent over 30 years in national security and foreign policy, I know the importance of allies. Alliances are, of course, critical to the defense of our homeland — it was our NATO allies that came to our defense after the deadly 9/11 attacks.  

Our success or failure as a nation in wars and international conflicts is often reflective of the allies we engage. They are every bit as important in handling other international threats.

As British Prime Minister Theresa May said in her speech to congressional Republicans, “We know that so many of the threats we face today – global terrorism, climate change, and unprecedented mass movements of people – do not respect national borders. So we must turn towards those multinational institutions like the U.N. and NATO that encourage international cooperation and partnership.”

The brand of American isolationism that President Trump campaigned on is simply bad strategy for dealing with an international threat like climate change, just as it’s bad strategy for national security and defense. Taking a constructive position of cooperation in key forums like the G20 will be critical to maintaining the alliances we need to fight our common battles.

Since it was adopted in December of 2015, foreign ministers and leaders have been unwavering in their support of the Paris Agreement, and the landmark climate deal has become a cornerstone in the diplomatic relations between G20 nations.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Tillerson suggested that he’d be hesitant about pulling out of the Paris Agreement, saying that he believed that the U.S. should “maintain its seat at the table.” He acknowledged that climate change does “require a global response.”

In Germany, Tillerson should reaffirm this commitment to our G20 partners and assure the world that America will strengthen, not retreat from, global cooperation to reduce the global and regional threats of climate change. 

Ignoring or denying the realities of climate change won’t make the threat go away. Tillerson and Trump can spend the next four years trying to put out fires around the world, but they will soon find out what the U.S. military has known for decades — true security is about prevention. Only by tackling the root causes of conflict can our nation be kept safe and secure.

President Trump says he takes seriously his responsibility to protect American citizens from threats, to ensure our safety and ensure homeland security. The simple reality is that we are safer at home by engaging productively with our G20 allies on climate change, working together to lessen the world’s most vicious threat multiplier.


Sherri Goodman is a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and a former deputy undersecretary of defense.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Climate change Donald Trump G20 Global warming Mike Pence Munich Security Conference National security NATO

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