Obama Calls Climate Denial ‘Dereliction of Duty’

The administration is emphasizing climate change’s security threat, from the melting Arctic to the boiling Middle East. It is an uphill slog.


President Barack Obama ramped up his rhetoric on the security threat posed by climate change with a speech Wednesday and the release of a White House report on the security implications of a warming world. Too bad he’s not yet putting his money where his mouth is.

There’s growing consensus within the Pentagon and American intelligence community that climate change will pose a direct threat to the United States as seas rise, rivers dry, and droughts enflame places like Syria. Washington, though, has yet to spend the money necessary to keep up with rivals like Russia and China, which are building new bases in the Arctic and icebreaking ships to stake their claim in a changing world.

“Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security. And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country,” Obama said in a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

Many who agree about the threat posed by climate change want to see more action. “The president’s budget does not reflect the president’s rhetoric,” said Adm. David Titley (ret.), former chief oceanographer for the U.S. Navy and the first head of the Navy’s climate change task force. “This is really about making sure that our armed forces, including the Coast Guard, are ready for what’s coming,” he said.

The United States, for example, has one operable heavy icebreaker needed to navigate polar waters; Russia alone has four nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers and four more on the way.

In his speech and with the release of the new White House report on climate risks, Obama is trying to connect the dots from the defense and intelligence communities that increasingly view climate change as a security issue, not just an environmental or economic nightmare. By casting climate as a security problem, Obama and like-minded leaders in other parts of the world hope to make tackling climate change a bigger priority.

The U.S. Defense Department has highlighted climate risks like rising sea levels for military bases; intelligence officials warn that a changing climate will likely drive more conflict, especially in already-unstable parts of the world. Defense officials in Europe and Australia have in recent years also increasingly underscored the security threat from climate change, though with few concrete changes to their military capabilities, weapons acquisitions, or structure.

The president pointedly highlighted the defense implications of a changing climate for Republicans who are climate doves and defense hawks. “Denying it or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security,” Obama said.

But if that push is meant to broaden political support for action to fight climate change, it appears to be having little effect so far. Many Republicans remain skeptical of climate change and deeply hostile to Pentagon efforts to reinvent itself to deal with potential impacts of a warmer world, especially given the immediate crises bubbling from North Korea to southern Yemen.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an outspoken skeptic of climate change, slammed Obama’s priorities after the speech. “The president’s repeated failure to understand the real threat to our national security and inability to develop a coherent national security strategy has put this nation at an unknown level of risk with consequences that will span over decades,” Inhofe said in a statement.

In its latest report, the Obama administration highlighted several specific ways in which climate change will likely pose a security threat for the United States in years to come. In essence, climate change will create more work for the U.S. military, including growing numbers of humanitarian and disaster response missions due to increasingly powerful storms and rising sea levels. Those rising seas also pose a risk to existing military installations, such as the U.S. naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, the world’s largest. (Rising seas are a problem for China, too, threatening to erase entire coastlines and megacities like Shanghai.) And climate change, by exacerbating drought and affecting water supplies, could make places like the Horn of Africa and the Middle East even more unstable.

Exhibit A, and of particular interest to the Coast Guard, is the melting Arctic Ocean, where historically low levels of sea ice mean that a once-closed sea is now open for business — and geopolitical competition. That has taken on greater urgency given Russia’s assault on European security and recent build-up of military capability north of the Arctic Circle, as well as Obama’s own approval for offshore oil exploration northwest of Alaska.

“By the middle of this century, Arctic summers could be essentially ice free. We’re witnessing the birth of a new ocean — new sea lanes, more shipping, more exploration, more competition for the vast natural resources below,” Obama said.

That’s a big deal for U.S. forces, especially the Coast Guard that has to patrol those waters. But the implications could be even bigger on the other side of the world, where a changing landscape is merging with changing geopolitical realities such as a more assertive Russia.

“We are literally opening up a new ocean: the ice-locked, impenetrable border of Northern Europe is becoming an actual frontier, and that’s a huge change,” Titley said.

The White House report also stressed — indeed, perhaps overstated a bit — the links between climate change and conflict. “A changing climate will act as an accelerant of instability around the world, exacerbating tensions related to water scarcity and food shortages, natural resource competition, underdevelopment, and overpopulation,” the report said.

Plenty of recent studies have explored the role that climate change, drought, crop failure and water shortages may have played in driving instability and conflict, especially in the Middle East. Bad harvests in the winter of 2010, for example, may have led to rising food prices and food shortages in early 2011, which in turn may have added kindling for protests across North Africa that led to the Arab Spring.

Another study, and one that Obama alluded to, concluded that the Syrian civil war may have been accelerated by climate change. Years of drought hammered Syria’s agricultural sector, led to rising food prices and urban migration, and may have helped push social tensions there over the edge in 2011. Historically, the entire 17th century is testimony to the kinds of upheavals, revolutions, and wars that can be unleashed by a changing climate and failing crops.

But the exact linkage between drought and conflict, often taken as a given in the debate over the security implications of climate change, isn’t quite so clear. Many studies have shown little correlation between water availability and civil and interstate conflict, for example. Others conclude that state governance is a much bigger factor in conflicts than environmental changes.

More likely, climate change and its related impacts will be simply one more headache for places that are already reeling. “If you take volatile and vulnerable and poorly-governed regions and you add this additional stressor, sometimes things break and when they break, they can break catastrophically,” Titley said. “Climate is not the reason, but it is contributing to some of this violent instability that we are seeing.”

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty

*Correction, May 21, 2015: Sen. James Inhofe is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said he was the chairman of the committee.

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

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