Global climate change presents a serious national security threat that could affect Americans at home, impact U.S. military operations and heighten global tensions, according to a study released today by a blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals.
The study, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” explores ways projected climate change is a “threat multiplier” in already fragile regions of the world, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states—the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.
The CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, brought together eleven retired four-star and three-star admirals and generals to provide advice, expertise and perspective on the impact of climate change on national security. CNA writers and researchers compiled the report under the board's direction and review. The full report will be available on SecurityAndClimate.cna.org.
The Military Advisory Board members come from all branches of the armed services. The board includes a former Army chief of staff, commanders-in-chiefs of U.S. forces in global regions, a former shuttle astronaut and NASA administrator, and experts in planning, logistics, underwater operations and oceanography. One member also served as U.S. ambassador to China.
“Climate change is a national security issue,” retired General. Gordon R. Sullivan, chairman of the Military Advisory Board and former Army chief of staff, said in releasing the report at a Washington news conference. “We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world.”
“People are saying they want to be perfectly convinced about climate science projections,” he said. “But speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”
Military Advisory Board members said they remain optimistic that climate change challenges can be managed to reduce future risks. The first step recommended in the study is for the national intelligence community to include comprehensive assessments of climate change in future security plans, just as agencies now take into account traditional but uncertain threats.
As part of its five specific recommendations for action, the Military Advisory Board stated that “the path to mitigating the worst security consequences of climate change involves reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.”
“There is a relationship between carbon emissions and our national security,” General Sullivan said recently. “I think that the evidence is there that would suggest that we have to start paying attention.”
“Carbon emissions are clearly part of the problem,” he added.
“We will pay for this one way or another,” stated retired Marine Corps General Anthony C. Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. “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.”
Retired Navy Vice Admiral Richard H. Truly, a shuttle astronaut and former NASA administrator, said in the report that “unlike the challenges that we are used to dealing with, these will come upon us extremely slowly, but come they will, and they will be grinding and inexorable.” Truly also notes that “maybe more challenging is that climate change will affect every nation, and all simultaneously. This is why we need to study this issue now, so that we'll be prepared and not overwhelmed by the required scope of our response when the time comes”
Environmental Threats Have Security Implications
The report recognizes that unabated climate change could bring an increased frequency of extreme storms, additional drought and flooding, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and the rapid spread of life-threatening disease. While these projected effects are usually viewed as environmental challenges, the Military Advisory Board has looked at them from the perspective of national security assessments and has identified them as serious risk factors for:
Such developments could lead to direct U.S. military involvement, the board found.
“Climate change can provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror,” said retired Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, former commander-in-chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and of Allied Forces, Southern Europe. “Rising ocean water levels, droughts, violent weather, ruined national economies—those are the kinds of stresses we'll see more of under climate change.”
“In the long term, we want to address the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit,” Admiral Lopez said. “But climate change will prolong those conditions. It makes them worse.”
Impacts on U.S. Military Intervention and Regional Stability
The report describes national security implications of climate change in regions of the world.
The report states that “Tensions may rise as immigration from Africa and the Middle East—exacerbated by climate change—places additional social and economic pressures on countries. Some of America's strongest allies may be distracted as they struggle to protect their own borders. Such an inward focus may make it more difficult to build international coalitions, or engage in exercises to ensure readiness.”
“Europe will be focused on its own borders,” retired Admiral Donald L. Pilling, vice chief of naval operations, said in the report. “There is potential for fracturing some very strong alliances based on migrations and the lack of control over borders.”
The report focuses on the ways in which climate change can contribute to shortages of food, drinking water and farmland, adding strain in a region that is already the source of 30 percent of the world's refugees. It states: “Such changes will add significantly to existing tensions and can facilitate weakened governance, economic collapses, massive human migrations, and potential conflicts.”
“We ought to care about Africa because we're a good country,” retired Air Force General Charles F. “Chuck” Wald said in the report. As deputy commander of the United States European Command, he was also responsible for U.S. forces in Africa. (Supervision of American forces in that continent was recently moved from EUCOM into a new “AFRICOM” command.) “We have a humanitarian character; it's one of our great strengths, and we shouldn't deny it. Some may be tempted to avert their eyes, but I would hope we instead see the very real human suffering taking place there. We should be moved by it, challenged by it. Even in the context of security discussions, I think these reasons matter, because part of our security depends on remaining true to our values. …
“We import more oil from Africa than the Middle East—probably a shock to a lot of people—and that share will grow. …we'll be drawn into the politics of Africa, to a much greater extent.”
Noting this is the region of the world in which the U.S. is most engaged militarily, the report states that “water resources are a critical issue… and will become even more critical… Competition for increasingly scarce resources may exacerbate the level of conflict.”
“The existing situation [in the Middle East] makes this place more susceptible to problems,” General Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander, said in the report. “Even small changes may have a greater impact here than they may have elsewhere. You already have great tension over water. These are cultures often built around a single source of water.
“It's not hard to make the connection between climate change and instability, or climate change and terrorism,” General Zinni added.
The report states: “Rising sea levels will threaten all coastal nations. Caribbean nations are especially vulnerable in this regard, with the combination of rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity potentially devastating to some island nations … and a likely increase in immigration from neighbor states.” In addition the report finds that “[l]oss of glaciers will strain water supply in several areas, particularly Peru and Venezuela.”
The report finds that many factors may affect the continent. Potential sea level rise would have a severe impact with almost 40 percent of Asia's population of nearly 4 billion living within forty-five miles of coastlines. In addition, the reduced availability of farmland and drinking water and the increased spread of infectious disease would destabilize the region.
One Military Advisory Board member, retired Navy Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, views Asia from two perspectives, having been commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific and later U.S. ambassador to China. He suggested, as the full report does, that the U.S. should work with key international partners, including China, one of the leading emitters of atmospheric carbon.
“On the issue of carbon emissions, it doesn't help us to solve our problem if China doesn't solve theirs. And that means we need to engage with them on many fronts,” Admiral Prueher said in the report. “Not talking to the Chinese is not an option.”
Impacts on Military Bases and Operations
The Military Advisory Board found that climate change impacts may affect U.S. military bases, requiring the Pentagon to prepare differently for future national security scenarios. It outlined specific ways that climate change will add to the difficulties facing future U.S. military leaders:
Climate change may have differing impacts on the four branches of the armed services. The former head of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, retired General Paul J. Kern, said changes may make it more difficult for the Army to handle basic supplies.
“Military planning should view climate change as a threat to the balance of energy access, water supplies, and a healthy environment, and it should require a response,” General Kern said in the report. “Responding after the fact with troops—after a crisis occurs—is one kind of response. Working to delay these changes—to accommodate a balance among these staples—is, of course, another way.”
General Wald raised additional concerns. “There are a number of questions we should be asking now, if we're to prepare for some of the projected impacts,” he said in talking about the report. “Will the Air Force be expected to move larger quantities of supplies, including fuel, food or drinking water? Will they be expected to move larger numbers of people, perhaps in evacuations? Will we have the right kind of equipment, personnel and training to handle new missions, without diminishing our conventional military capacity? That's barely a start, but it gives you a sense of the scale of potential change.”
The report notes that changes in the salinity of oceans, if glaciers melt and water temperatures change, could affect submarine equipment such as sonar. There may also be a greater need for civilian evacuations. Marines and Special Operations forces are trained and equipped now primarily for small- to medium-sized rescue operations.
Admiral Pilling said that if climate change increases the frequency or intensity of hurricanes, there could be a destabilizing effect on the Navy, especially in the Southeastern United States. “It may cause you to move ships north to avoid hurricanes. If a ship's captain thinks he's in the middle of hurricane season, he's going to go out—get away from port. It impacts maintenance schedules and impacts operational structures. And that doesn't factor in the damage that hurricanes can do to our ports.”
The report cites the Arctic as a region of particular concern for military planners. “If the warming we've seen in the high Arctic continues, then there is a possibility of a new sea route, a 'Northwest Passage' if you will,” Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II, former chief of naval research and the former president of National Defense University, said about the study. “Will we be ready for both that opportunity and a new sea lane to defend? Will we have the right kinds of ships? Will we be ready for the acoustic surveillance challenges in a changed environment? Will it inspire a mission that requires greater air support from the Navy or the Air Force? What kinds of new basing arrangements will be necessary? These are questions security planners should be contemplating.”
The Military Advisory Board chose not to engage in debate over climate science but did note that current levels of atmospheric carbon are already at historically high levels and are increasing. “This rise presents the prospect of significant climate change,” the board said in its letter transmitting the report to the American public. “And while uncertainty exists and debate continues regarding the science and future extent of projected climate changes, the trends are clear. The nature and pace of climate changes being observed today and the consequences projected by the consensus scientific opinion are grave and pose equally grave implications for our national security.”
The Military Advisory Board called on the Defense Department to find ways to limit the extent of climate change, in part by controlling its own greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use while simultaneously increasing combat capabilities for American forces worldwide.
“Our national security is inextricably linked to our country's energy security,” said retired Navy Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman, who was director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program.
“The military should be interested in fuel economy on the battlefield,” retired Lieutenant General Lawrence P. Farrell Jr., who was deputy Air Force chief of staff for plans and programs, said in the report. “It's a readiness issue. If you can move your men and materiel more quickly, if you have less tonnage but the same level of protection and firepower, you're more efficient on the battlefield. That's a life and death issue.”
Findings and Recommendations
The report includes several formal findings:
The report also made several specific recommendations:
Military Advisory Board Members
The Military Advisory Board is composed of eleven of the nation's most senior former officers and national security experts:
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