Climate change: The new national security challenge

On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush famously received an intelligence briefing titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda terrorists tragically turned threat into reality.

Today, scientists tell us we have a 10-year window — if even that — before catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable and irreversible.

This is our intelligence briefing — it tells us the threat is real and time is not on our side.


If Vice President Cheney can argue that even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack is 100 percent justification for preemptive action, then, surely, when scientists tell us that climate change is nearly a 100 percent certainty we should join in an all-out effort to make ourselves safe.

Make no mistake — this is an American national security challenge.

Climate change injects a new major source of chaos, tension and human insecurity into an already volatile world. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity, and staggering human displacement. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us.

Anyone who doubts the threat should talk to the 11 retired American admirals and generals who warned in 2007, “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national-security challenges for the United States.”

In their final national security analysis, the security planners in the Bush Administration recognized climate change among key trends that will shape U.S. defense policy in the coming years.

Just last week, former United States Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander William Fallon warned that, left unchecked, climate change will “be significantly destabilizing to our future.” 

Another Former CENTCOM Commander Anthony Zinni put it simply: “We will pay for this one way or another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll.”

Heed the warnings of the National Intelligence Council — the U.S. intelligence community’s think tank — which concluded “global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national-security interests over the next 20 years.”

Nowhere is the connection between climate and security more direct than in South Asia, home to al Qaeda.

Scientists now warn the Himalayan glaciers, which supply fresh water to a billion people in India and Pakistan, will face severe impacts from climate change. India’s rivers are not only vital to its agriculture but also critical to its religious practice. Pakistan, for its part, depends on irrigated farming to avoid famine.

At a moment when our government is scrambling to ratchet down tensions across that strategically vital region, climate change could work powerfully in the opposite direction. Failure to tackle climate change risks much more than a ravaged environment: It risks a much more dangerous world and a gravely threatened America.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Washington appreciates the stakes.

If a politician completely dismissed or denied the threat of terrorism, he or she would be sent home in the next election. But there are seemingly few political consequences if you dismiss the science or the threat of climate change.

Here’s one fact that should awaken every rock-ribbed defense hawk to the stakes: There will always be excuses to wait, but every day that Washington fails to price carbon and embrace clean energy, America sends another $100 million to Iran. That’s not a choice America can afford.  


Last week, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and I unveiled the American Power Act, a comprehensive energy and climate approach that sends the price signal on carbon that the market needs to unleash America’s entrepreneurial energy.

In 2010, that is the test of a serious policy to combat climate change.  

When our admirals and generals warn that failure to act will put America and the world in danger, it is clearer than ever:  This is our August 2001 memo. These are our warnings. The time to act on them is now.

Kerry is the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee