Climate change is an accelerating threat to national security.
That’s the finding of a recent report by CNA’s Military Advisory Board, a panel I serve on along with some of our country’s most senior retired military leaders. Each of us is a hard-nosed leader with decades of experience evaluating national security risks.
We have been keeping an eye on climate change for years, first reporting on it as a potential national security threat in 2007. Since then, we have seen the scientific consensus continue to develop and solidify, while signatures of a warming world-from global temperature trends to severe weather events – strongly suggest that our climate is already changing. And we are increasingly worried about the lack of comprehensive action by the United States and the global community.
The changing climate is already serving as a catalyst for conflict. Consider, for example, the severe drought in the years leading up to the civil war in Syria. The drought didn’t cause the war, but it certainly served as a destabilizing factor. Struggles for control of food, water and energy supplies escalate tensions between ethnic groups, religious groups and nations. And as we’re seeing in Iraq, ancient tensions can flare up into deadly conflict.
I used to be something of a skeptic about climate change. I have a doctorate in meteorology. I know how complicated the weather system is, and how difficult it is to predict accurately the weather even a few days in advance.
But climate is not about predictions of a specific day’s weather many months or years in the future. It’s understanding the trends: hotter or colder, wetter or drier, trends in sea level rise and in severe storms. Over the years, scientific findings have built up to the point where we simply cannot afford to ignore them. And this is true no matter what your politics might be. The climate doesn’t care about politics.
I had the privilege to initiate the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. In the Navy, we found it was important to step away from the emotions and the politics of the issue. We worked to evaluate the changing climate like we’d evaluate any other change the Pentagon needs to deal with, like a coup that topples a political regime or a shift in a fragile region’s demographics or economy.
So we’d look at, for example, rising sea levels. This century, global sea levels are projected to rise several feet. Naval bases and installations around the world – along with the communities that support them – will be affected, and we need to plan for that.
Climate change affects military readiness, strains base resilience, creates missions in new regions of the world, and increases the likelihood that our armed forces will be deployed for humanitarian missions. In many cases it also threatens our infrastructure and affects our economy. And our continued reliance on the fossil fuels whose consumption leads to climate change ties our nation’s hands on the world stage, and tethers us to nations that do not always have our best interests at heart.
Climate scientists tell us we can still head off the worst effects of climate change. We can move toward more efficient, cleaner sources of energy in ways that make economic sense. And we can work on adaptation strategies to protect people and resources in the face of climate change that is already locked in.
But we need to get moving. Last year was the fourth warmest on record. It was the 37th year in a row that global average temperatures were above the long-term average. All of the top 10 warmest years on record have been logged since 1998.
The climate is changing. We can do something about it. For the sake of our nation and the world, we must act.
Retired Rear Adm. David Titley directs the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State. He served in the Navy for 32 years, and was the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy 2009-2012. He is a member of CNA’s Military Advisory Board, a panel of senior retired admirals and generals who study issues critical to national security. He discussed climate change as a national security issue at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman last week.