In March 2013, four-star Admiral Samuel Locklear III sat down with a Boston Globe reporter in a Cambridge hotel. As head of the Pacific Command, Admiral Locklear commanded the 400,000 troops stationed in the Pacific Command, stretching from California to India to Korea.
The admiral had to worry about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, tensions between China and Japan over the South and East China Seas and typhoons in the Pacific. But when reporter Bryan Bender asked him what was the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region Admiral Locklear gave a two-word answer: “climate change.”
He explained, “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.”
Today, with the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump has signaled that our national security agencies no longer need to consider the impacts of climate change — rising sea levels, extreme heat, dramatic flooding, more intense wildfires, extended drought and more severe weather — as a security challenge to the nation.
In doing so, President TrumpDonald TrumpMedia giants side with Bannon on request to release Jan. 6 documents Cheney warns of consequences for Trump in dealings with Jan. 6 committee Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official MORE contradicted not only Admiral Locklear’s assessment of the threats that climate change poses to national security, but also that of his own secretary of defense and his predecessors, the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State, along with the National Intelligence Council.
Among other things, President Trump’s “Energy Independence” executive order kills a memorandum issued by President Obama last fall requiring national security agencies to plan for the impacts of climate change. Obama’s memorandum was born out of the recognition that failing to integrate consideration of climate impacts into our national security policy puts our nation at grave risk.
The memorandum created a Climate and National Security Working Group to improve information sharing among agencies, provide policymakers clear and accurate information and analysis and ensure adequate consideration of the impacts of climate change in national security doctrine, policies, and plans.
Before the memorandum reached President Obama’s desk, every single affected Federal agency had concurred in its issuance. That’s not surprising. Virtually every major security document created by federal government personnel identifies climate change as a security threat.
The 2015 National Security Strategy calls out climate change as an urgent and growing threat. The Department of Defense calls it a “threat multiplier.” The Department of Homeland Security views it a major challenge to homeland security. The Department of State terms it “a national and global security threat.”
Just last fall, in conjunction with the issuance of President Obama’s memorandum, the National Intelligence Council — essentially the think tank for our intelligence agencies — issued a report stating that climate change is already having significant impacts that are “likely to pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades.”
The report identified six pathways by which climate change and its resulting effects will challenge our security, including overwhelming state capacity to respond, contributing to mass migrations that could destabilize governments, increased risks to human health and negative impacts on our economy.
Every secretary of defense since Robert Gates was first appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 has identified climate change as a national security threat. Just this month, President Trump’s own Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated climate change “is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.”
He made clear that military leaders should “incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” He’s also said that climate change requires “a broader, whole of government” approach.
In issuing these warnings, our national security experts have plenty of examples of how — in the words of Admiral Locklear — our security situation can “go bad” due to climate change impacts.
Take Syria, a semi-arid nation with scarce water supplies. From 1900 to 2005, Syria experienced six significant droughts — five lasted just a year each, one lasted for two. In 2006, drought struck again. But this drought lasted longer and was worsened by increased aridity resulting from climate change.
As the drought unfolded, people began to move — as many as 1.5 million. That type of internal migration stresses local communities, threatens food security and creates pressures on local government. And in the case of Syria, civil unrest followed.
Although many factors contributed to the Syrian conflict and the diaspora that followed, extended and prolonged drought added additional accelerant to the smoldering conditions. Similarly, the drought in Somalia from 2011 to 2013, and the resulting famine, led to political instability which the terrorist group Al-Shabaab exploited to coerce and tax international relief agencies and to withhold food from those it deemed uncooperative.
Another drought exacerbated by climate change is now sweeping across Africa. This time it threatens not only Somalia, but also South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria — all countries with known terrorist groups. Some 20 million people are at risk for famine. As the National Intelligence Council has noted, threats to food security sharpen the risks for migration and large-scale instability.
President Trump and his team have now decided that they know better than our military leaders and the hundreds of civil servants and military personnel behind the strategic documents identifying climate change as a destructive and destabilizing threat.
Although he is not known for his use of irony, it’s ironic that President Trump has issued his executive order in the interest of “ensuring the nation's geopolitical security.” Deliberately ignoring the devastation brought by climate change will leave us anything but secure.
Retired Judge Alice C. Hill’s works as a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Her work focuses on building resilience to the destabilizing impacts of climate change. Prior to joining Hoover, she served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president and senior director for resilience policy for the National Security Council.
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