The presidential debates, research on how a mega drought may have contributed to instability in Syria and the negotiations in Paris have brought a lot of attention recently to the idea of climate change as a national security threat. This is not a new idea, however, and it's certainly not a partisan one. It's something both our defense and intelligence communities have been worried about for a long time.
Why the worry? First of all, climate change is what the U.S. Department of Defense calls a "threat multiplier." This means that it can make other security risks — food and water scarcity in strategically-significant nations, for example — a lot worse. This in turn can increase the likelihood of state failure and conflict, which the United States, will almost certainly be called upon to deal with. Whether it's the possibility of greater instability in the Middle East or North Africa, increased tensions in the South China Sea, or a melting Arctic, climate change is introducing new risks into the security landscape. And as the de facto guarantors of international security, the United States will be expected to handle it.
Debates about solutions to, or even the existence of, climate change have colored the problem itself, making it a very politicized issue in recent years (although there is some cause for optimism). That's too bad, because it overlooks the fact that the military and the intelligence worlds have been sounding the alarm for over a decade.
In 2003, under the George W. Bush Administration, the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessments sponsored a report that stated: "because of the potentially dire consequences, the risk of abrupt climate change … should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern." In 2007, three separate military documents produced by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, and the the CNA Military Advisory Board warned of the risks of a changing climate.
The intelligence community was also sounding the alarm during the George W. Bush Administration. In 2008, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) identified climate change as a national security issue in both its "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World" report and a "National Intelligence Assessment." In the latter document, the NIC concluded: "We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years."
This concern has extended into the current administration. In 2009, under the leadership of then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Roughead, I set up the U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change. In 2014, the Pentagon responded to the increasing evidence of observable climate impacts, noting in its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap that climate change "poses immediate risks to U.S. national security."
In an Op-Ed last year, General (ret) Anthony Zinni, General (ret) Ronald Keys, and General (ret) Frank "Skip" Bowman, stated:
"Today, as we pass another global heat record, we run the risk of being too late on climate change... Just as we have underestimated recent threats, such as the Islamic State and a revanchist Russia, we are in danger of underestimating those threats that follow a changing climate."
Thankfully, this admonition is being heeded by national security leaders on both sides of the aisle. Eleven Republican congressmen in the House have signed onto the "Gibson Resolution," which recognizes climate change as a "threat multiplier," and urges the Republican Party to develop comprehensive solutions for dealing with the threat. In the Senate, Senators Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk and Lindsey Graham have formed a "Senate Energy and Environment Working Group" and will meet periodically to "discuss general energy and environmental issues and exchange ideas about potential legislation." Just this past October, a bipartisan group of prominent defense and foreign policy leaders issued a statement calling for action on climate change.
In short, policymakers and thinkers on both sides of the political divide are starting to respond to the warnings from the security establishment. But there is still a lot of work to do.
Though the international negotiations in Paris are an important forum for dealing with climate change, its geostrategic implications are so wide-ranging that tackling them will require a much broader and deeper responses at local, national, regional, and global levels. We'll have to ask, and answer, questions such as:
How will climate change impact NATO strategies and operations? What can be done at the UN Security Council? How are the U.S. Combatant Commands going to be affected in theater, and are they prepared to deal with an increase in instability and conflict? How can investments in climate resilience help us build alliances and partnerships as we "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region?
For the security community, it's not "either we deal with security threat X (terrorism, nuclear proliferation, etc), or we deal with climate change." It's both, and everything else, as these issues all contribute to destabilizing the security environment. Left unchecked, the risks of climate change will make our security threats harder to deter, contain or defeat. In our efforts to protect the American people, and the national interest, we must walk and chew gum at the same time.
Rear Admiral David W. Titley, U.S. Navy (ret), a former Oceanographer of the Navy, is on the advisory board of The Center for Climate and Security. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.