Actually, climate change is a threat to national security


There was a Democratic debate for president the other night, and there was a lot of chatter afterward about a comment made by one of the candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Throughout his campaign, Sanders has insisted that climate change is the No. 1 issue facing both America and mankind. But in the wake of Friday’s grim terrorist attack conducted by ISIS in Paris that killed some 129 people, the media and some voters — perhaps understandably — now want to speak of little else. So when a CBS reporter asked Sanders whether he still thinks global warming is the most important issue, this is what the candidate said:

Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to see countries all over the world — this is what the CIA says — they’re going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops ask you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.

Now Sen. Sanders took a beating in the press for not backing down. Some conservative pundits cited the answer as evidence of his unfitness to serve as president. But there’s just one problem with their dismissive analysis: Among the other folks who believe that global warming is a dire threat to American national security include the White House, the current director of the CIA, and the Pentagon. Why? Weather-induced crises — especially drought or flooding, which in turn create a huge strain on agriculture and raise the risk of famine — can cause political unrest and violence, as well as massive migration. Here’s what the Defense Department said about the risk from global warming, just last year:

“A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. The military could be called upon more often to support civil authorities, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the face of more frequent and more intense natural disasters. Our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding, while droughts, wildfires, and more extreme temperatures could threaten many of our training activities. Our supply chains could be impacted, and we will need to ensure our critical equipment works under more extreme weather conditions. Weather has always affected military operations, and as the climate changes, the way we execute operations may be altered or constrained . . . Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.”

How does this play out in the real world? Take a look at Syria, the war-torn nation that is the source of so much tension in the Middle East right now. Experts say that a record drought, exacerbated by climate change, forced people off farms and into the cities. There, they spearheaded the protests that started a civil war that has lasted for four years with no end in sight:

In the case of Syria, it was what one expert called perhaps “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent.” It destroyed the livelihoods of 800,000 people and sent vastly more into poverty. The poor and displaced fled to cities, “where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011,” the study’s news release explains.

The study concludes climate change is already drying the region, as climate models had long predicted. In 2011, a major NOAA study concluded that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.”

What worries me is that — with the new focus on counter-terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks — the momentum that had been building for meaningful global action to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels will dissipate. Indeed, major negotiations  among the world powers have been slated to begin toward the end of this month — in Paris, of all places. There’s already talk that protesters seeking to pressure the world leaders into a more aggressive approach will be limited, or even barred, in their activities because of fears of another attack, That would be a mistake. Climate change and fighting terrorism are not an “either/or” proposition. We need to solve both problems, quickly.

Read more about the Democratic debate and Sen. Sanders’ comments here:

Check out the Defense Department statement in climate change here:

For more about climate change and the situation in Syria, please read:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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