A Clear and Present Danger

President Obama is calling for a war on climate change. Too bad he doesn't have the tools to win it.

Photo by Allen Onstott/U.S. Navy
Photo by Allen Onstott/U.S. Navy

Barack Obama’s administration says that climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States that will only grow worse over time as droughts, floods, and storms become part of everyday life throughout the country. Unfortunately for the White House, the politics of tackling climate change are dismal: Republicans have grown even more hostile to the issue in recent years, it barely registers in public opinion polls, and this year’s midterm elections make dramatic action a virtual impossibility.

But there is one group of very serious people that could start to shift the terms of the political debate: the Pentagon. Climate change is creating fresh headaches and nightmare security scenarios for defense planners who don’t have the luxury of denying the appearance of new oceans and new responsibilities.

President Obama renewed the climate offensive Tuesday, May 6, with the release of the third National Climate Assessment, which was crafted by about 300 experts under the oversight of the federal government. The report concludes that climate change is already impacting the world and will only grow harsher over time. It points to an array of grim trends, including the historic drought ravaging the western United States, growing numbers of severe storms, and the likelihood of sea levels rising by up to 4 feet by the end of the century, devastating the Eastern Seaboard.

Obama had planned to make climate change one of his second-term priorities, after an ambitious climate change bill floundered and died in the Senate in 2010. Lofty rhetoric and tough talk shone through his second inaugural address and his 2013 State of the Union speech. His administration has chalked up some impressive, if incremental, victories, most notably the new environmental regulations that would essentially ban coal-fired power plants, helping further slash greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector.

Still, Obama’s ability to take more sweeping action to fight climate change remains hamstrung by unrelenting opposition from Republicans like longtime climate skeptic and administration foil Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.). On Tuesday, Inhofe dismissed the report just hours after it was released.

"With this report, the president is attempting to once again distract Americans from his unchecked regulatory agenda that is costing our nation millions of job opportunities and our ability to be energy independent," Inhofe said in a statement.

But a key part of the GOP’s constituency — the defense establishment — has come to view climate change as a serious threat and is increasingly speaking out about the importance of preparing the U.S. military to operate in a world remade by its impact. That’s because climate change, far from being some abstract or controversial notion, is directly impacting the Pentagon’s bases and areas of operation today.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told an audience at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Tuesday that climate change and an increasing frequency of natural disasters, among other shifts in the global landscape, "are challenging and will continue to challenge America’s security."

"Environmental issues, energy issues — they are all connected, and they are all integrated into our national security," he added, citing the challenges confronting the U.S. Navy as the ice that once covered the Arctic Ocean continues to melt.

The Defense Department’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review, the guiding strategy document for the Pentagon, describes climate change as a "threat multiplier." The new National Climate Assessment specifically recommends more research on the implications of climate change on national security.

"We do need to incorporate what these effects and impacts are going to mean for our overall strategic commitments and interests," Sharon Burke, the outgoing assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, said in an interview.

Burke said that Pentagon leaders have identified three main ways that climate change will affect security: accelerating instability in parts of the world wracked by drought, famine, and climate-related migrations; threatening U.S. military bases in arid Western states or on vulnerable coastlines; and increasing the need for U.S. forces to respond to major humanitarian disasters, such as the historic typhoon that walloped the Philippines last year.

Uniformed military leaders, both active and retired, are also sounding the alarm about climate change’s potential impact on U.S. security. Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of the military’s Pacific Command, made waves last year when he called climate change the biggest threat to the United States in the region. Locklear locked horns in Senate testimony with Inhofe, who challenged the notion that climate change is a bigger threat than rogue states or a rising China.

"This administration continues to try and distract the country from the real threats to our national security," including Iran, Russia, and al Qaeda, Inhofe told Foreign Policy. "Our military needs to focus on keeping our nation safe and not being used by this president as pawns in his liberal environmental agenda."

Defense officials like Burke say their concerns about climate change and energy use come from grappling with the real-world impacts of vulnerable supply lines and harsh new theaters of operation, not from politics.

Veteran commanders have become increasingly vocal in linking climate change to national security threats. Retired Rear Adm. David Titley, the former chief oceanographer for the U.S. Navy and the first head of the Navy’s climate change task force, has repeatedly warned Congress about the risks that climate change poses. Other brass, such as retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, have spent years sounding the alarm about the threat.

The big question is whether Pentagon warnings will translate into renewed political will inside the United States to make climate change a priority. In the most recent Pew Research Center poll, only 14 percent of Republicans surveyed cited climate change as a top priority; six years ago, the GOP presidential candidate, John McCain, co-authored c
limate change legislation.

"I think there is real potential" for a shift in the politics of climate, said Francesco Femia, the director of the Center for Climate and Security, a think tank.

"The military establishment is talking about the issue, dealing with the issue, and actually doing something about the issue because they feel it’s necessary to do so for their own readiness."

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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