From the melting Arctic to the Syrian drought, the president says climate change poses a bigger threat than the Islamic State. Too bad the GOP doesn’t want to do much to fight it.
- 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.
In the middle of January, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work signed off on one of the potentially most significant, if little-noticed, orders in recent Pentagon history. The directive told every corner of the Pentagon, including the office of the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs of staff, and all the combatant commands around the world, to put climate change front and center in their strategic planning.
“All DoD operations worldwide,” the directive began, “must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military.” Pentagon directives stay in place for 10 years unless explicitly rescinded, a move that is rarely taken. That means the military’s focus on climate change won’t likely be disappearing anytime soon regardless of who wins the 2016 election.
With the 12-page Pentagon memo, following a similar White House executive order, President Barack Obama took a quiet but important step toward cementing his legacy in an area that clearly has become critical for him: preparing to deal with the security risks of a rapidly morphing natural world.
“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” Obama recently told the Atlantic, referring to the Islamic State. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”
The president’s view of what is and isn’t an existential threat raised plenty of eyebrows among conservative commentators, who characterized his statements as essentially saying, “Russia doesn’t matter. Climate change is huge.”
But Obama isn’t alone. In recent years, most of the U.S. national security community has started talking up the threat posed by climate change. It’s become a fixture in the White House national security strategy, in the intelligence community’s future outlook, and at the State Department.
And there are some seemingly clear cases where climate change is either sparking conflicts or making them worse. The Syrian civil war, for example, has its roots in the Arab Spring, in the brutality of the Assad regime, and in the atomized nature of Syrian society. But what also seems to have played an outsized role in kindling the five-year horror show, according to scholars, is the worst drought in Syria’s recorded history — a drought that forced millions off the farm and into crowded cities, battered food production, and exacerbated an already terrible water shortage.
The American public is increasingly concerned about the security risks posed by climate change, though there is a clear partisan divide. In a Gallup poll from early March, 64 percent of Americans said they worried a “great deal or fair amount” about it, the highest level seen since 2008, while 41 percent said they feared it would affect them in their lifetimes, the highest level Gallup’s ever registered. Those fears were particularly pronounced among Democrats, fully 84 percent of whom say they worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming. Republicans, by contrast, are still very skeptical: Only 40 percent worry much about it and just 20 percent think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes, according to that poll.
Many GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates have had a field day with what they deride as Obama’s misguided obsession with climate change at a time, they argue, that there are so many immediate security challenges that seem to be getting worse. Businessman Donald Trump has called Obama’s focus on climate and security “one of the dumbest things” ever said, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz laughs at the idea that driving an SUV is a bigger threat than the Islamic State. Former candidate Carly Fiorina called Obama “delusional.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the presidential race last week, consistently derided Obama’s focus on global warming by saying “the climate has always been changing.”
Rubio is right. In just the last few thousand years, there’s been a “Roman Optimum,” when Hannibal could cross the Alps with elephants, a “Medieval Warm Period,” with Norse colonies in Greenland, and a “Little Ice Age,” when Swedish armies could march dry shod to Denmark.
But many big shifts in the climate — whether temperature swings, sudden droughts, or years of rain — have throughout history left terrible things in their wake. The sudden transformation of the Asian steppe from arid to well-watered in the sixth century, and again in the 14th century, midwifed a population explosion of the rodents carrying the plague bacillus that killed millions. Another came during a once-in-a-millennium rainy spell in the early 1200s that turned Genghis Khan’s Mongolia into a verdant grassland and fueled the birth of the history’s most expansive and destructive empire. The entire 17th century — “the century of the soldier,” in the words of an Italian poet who suffered through it– was a chilly catalog of famines, frosts, and rainy summers that spawned endless wars, regicides, and collapsing empires.
Man-made climate change appears to be even more dangerous: It is happening much faster than cyclical changes in the past, and the tectonic shifts are happening in unprecedented combinations. Global warming is melting the Arctic, raising sea levels, driving bugs carrying diseases like Zika, malaria, and dengue fever into virgin environments, and making dry places drier and wet places wetter — all at once. The Pentagon now defines climate change as a “present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk.”
“It’s striking to me that the worst impacts come right at the beginning of a shift in the climate regime,” said John Brooke, a historian at Ohio State University who literally wrote the book on climate’s impact on human history.
That’s one reason folks on the front lines are more worried about what’s happening than many lawmakers and politicians back home.
“You can’t be on the ground in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East and not see what’s happening,” said Christine Parthemore, a former Pentagon official who now serves as the executive director of the Center for Climate & Security, a think tank.
“I think that is why we’ve seen so many defense, intelligence, and diplomatic leaders start growing concerned about the security implications of climate change far earlier than our political leaders, academic researchers, or the general public,” she said.
When Adm. Sam Locklear ran U.S. Pacific Command from 2012 to 2015, his area of responsibility encompassed more than half of humanity. He saw increasing threats from famines to extreme typhoons to migrating fish stocks, and said as much in 2013, calling climate change the biggest U.S. security risk in the Pacific.
That earned him an incredulous public questioning from Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is a leading GOP voice on both defense and the environment, and who has repeatedly lambasted Obama’s fixation on climate-related threats over more immediate challenges.
But Locklear, now retired, isn’t backing down.
“President Obama has it right. I think it is a significant existential threat,” he told FP. While ISIS, Russia, and China are all issues the commander in chief will have to deal with, Locklear said, “You’ve got to stay focused on the big-picture issues that face humanity and their implications.”
For the people tasked with this problem, the real question isn’t whether the United States and its allies are worrying too much — it’s whether Washington and the world are doing too little. The Coast Guard is still struggling to build icebreakers that would allow the country to confidently take part in the opening Arctic, for example. Once-promising programs to put climate research into the heart of the U.S. intelligence process, like the Medea program that matched civilian scientists with CIA analysts, have been mysteriously shuttered.
Locklear figures the U.S. military, at least, has a good grasp of the problem, the Arctic aside. But he is concerned that climate-fueled breakdown in fragile states that are either unable or unwilling to prepare for looming shocks and stresses could seriously imperil U.S. national security in years and decades to come.
Others are even more pessimistic.
“I think we’re woefully far behind,” said Marc Levy of Columbia University, who has worked with the U.S. government and the United Nations on issues of climate and security. He said basic steps to come to grips with the problem, such as running stress tests on countries and regions at risk from climate change, have languished in bureaucratic hallways for years.
“Sometimes people get accused of being overly alarmist,” he said. “I think the warnings being given about the security threats from climate change are overly timid.”
Photo credit: YEOH THEAN KHENG/Flickr