Just ahead of the Paris summit, America’s top diplomat is trying to bolster support for an ambitious global climate change accord by stressing the security implications of a warming world.
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
Just weeks ahead of a major U.N. climate change conference in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made an impassioned call for the United States to take the lead in the environmental fight, seizing on the national security implications of a warming world as a cudgel to batter Republicans opposed to the Obama administration’s energy and environmental policies.
In a speech Tuesday at Old Dominion University, near the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, Kerry ticked off a now-familiar litany of national security threats posed by climate change. Those include droughts, rising sea levels, melting Arctic ice, and stronger and more frequent storms, all of which the Defense Department and plenty of retired military leaders point to as potential threat multipliers.
“I have made climate change a priority … not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment,” Kerry said. “Climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and indeed to the security and stability of countries everywhere.”
He also said that the State Department will now begin studying how to weave analysis of climate change and security into all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including everything from decisions on aid to proactive diplomacy meant to fend off security crises like the drought-fueled civil war in Syria. Increasingly, the Defense Department incorporates climate change into its security calculations, such as the need for humanitarian assistance in disaster-prone regions or increased attention to capabilities needed to operate in an opening Arctic.
“Just as the Pentagon has begun to view our military planning through a climate lens, ultimately we have to integrate climate considerations into every aspect of our foreign policy,” he said.
And Kerry, like President Barack Obama this past May, seized on climate change’s national security implications to take aim at Republican critics who for years have slammed the Obama administration’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and promote cleaner energy — policies that led to last week’s rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Obama said in a speech in May that those who don’t support action to fight climate change are guilty of “dereliction of duty.”
Republican lawmakers have been critical of the Pentagon’s concerns about climate change and have grilled members of the military brass who’ve played up the threat from a warming world. Leading Republicans, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lambasted two years ago a senior admiral who identified climate change as the biggest long-term risk in the Pacific, for example. Republican presidential candidates will square off in a debate on the economy Tuesday night, giving them a chance to take shots at Obama’s environmental policies, including the president’s decision to delay approval of Keystone for almost seven years before finally nixing the project.
Focusing on the national security repercussions of climate change gives Obama a way of pushing back at Republican accusations that a clean energy push will do more harm than good because of its potential economic damage.
It also reflects a growing chorus inside militaries in the United States, the United Kingdom, and NATO. France is concerned about the impacts of climate change on global security, especially in Francophone Africa. Retired Australian generals are urging Canberra to focus more on climate change’s challenges for Australia’s military. Even China, which for years has resisted the notion that climate change could impact its security, is beginning to rethink how rising seas and warmer temperatures could affect its ability to feed itself and deal with threats from both within and without.
“Kerry’s talking to an international audience, and the climate security message is even more salient in the rest of the world,” said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a think tank.
Climate change impacts security in two main ways. It can exacerbate bad situations in already fragile places, such as Syria and Yemen, and it can open up new arenas for potential conflict, such as in the melting Arctic. But rising seas and melting permafrost also threaten military bases themselves. At Norfolk, home to one-fifth of the U.S. Navy, sea levels are rising twice as fast as the global average and could rise more than 5 feet by the end of the century, potentially putting the main U.S. naval base out of commission.
Holland said that embedding climate change into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy could make it easier for policymakers to grapple with future challenges before they erupt. Understanding the impact of droughts or shrinking rivers in already volatile regions, for instance, could help U.S. policymakers come up with ways to increase food aid or plan for mass migrations before events spiral out of control, he said.
Despite painting a dire picture of a world wracked by conflict over dwindling water supplies, rising seas, and falling harvests, Kerry said concerted action now could still allow the world to avoid the worst impacts. He underscored the need for the United States to play a leading role at the upcoming climate summit in Paris next month, after the last global summit in Copenhagen in 2009 fizzled.
“The sooner we can move rapidly to a low-carbon economy … the sooner we will solve this problem in its entirety,” he said.
Republicans in Congress and at the state level have pushed back hard against the Obama administration’s plans to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector. And leading Republicans on the presidential campaign trail, including Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio, have been skeptical about climate change and the need to embrace cleaner energies. Many Republicans have also been critical of U.S. efforts to take the lead at the climate summit in Paris, arguing that developing countries — especially China — will just continue to pollute.
The United States has indeed made dramatic progress in reshaping its energy sector and cutting its emissions of carbon dioxide in recent years, thanks to both the domestic boom in natural gas production and tougher environmental rules from the Obama administration. And China, the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, has now mapped out ambitious plans to green the world’s second-biggest economy over the next five years.
And the world is already seeing dramatic shifts in the energy landscape. Coal, which has powered the world for centuries and is still the mainstay of electricity generation, this year suffered its first-ever decline in global consumption, for example. That transformation is set to continue over the next quarter-century, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said Tuesday, as cleaner energy like natural gas and renewables shunt aside dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil.
But that metamorphosis is not yet radical enough or spread broadly enough to meet global climate goals, the IEA concluded. Developing countries, led by India but also those in the Middle East, will increase their reliance on dirty fuels like oil and coal in the decades to come, potentially making it impossible for the world to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
“There are unmistakable signs that the much-needed global energy transition is underway, but not yet at a pace that leads to a lasting reversal of the trend of rising CO2 emissions,” the IEA said in its annual World Energy Outlook.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty