Global climate change presents a serious national security threat that could affect Americans at home, impact U.S. military operations and heighten global tensions, according to a study released recently by a blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals.
The study, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” explores ways projected climate change is a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions of the world, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states -- the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.
The CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, brought together 11 retired four-star and three-star admirals and generals to provide advice, expertise and perspective on the impact of climate change on national security.
CNA writers and researchers compiled the report under the board's direction and review. The full report will be available at SecurityAndClimate.cna.org.
The Military Advisory Board members come from all branches of the armed services. The board includes a former Army chief of staff, commanders-in-chief of U.S. forces in global regions, a former shuttle astronaut and NASA administrator, and experts in planning, logistics, underwater operations and oceanography. One member also served as U.S. ambassador to China.
"Climate change is a national security issue," Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., chairman of the Military Advisory Board, president of the Association of the United States Army and the 32nd Army chief of staff, said in releasing the report at a Washington news conference.
Adding, "We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world."
He noted, "People are saying they want to be perfectly convinced about climate science projections. But, speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield."
Military Advisory Board members said they remain optimistic that climate change challenges can be managed to reduce future risks.
The first step recommended in the study is for the national intelligence community to include comprehensive assessments of climate change in future security plans, just as agencies now take into account traditional but uncertain threats.
As part of its five specific recommendations for action, the Military Advisory Board stated "… the path to mitigating the worst security consequences of climate change involves reducing global greenhouse gas emissions."
"There is a relationship between carbon emissions and our national security," Sullivan said.
Adding, "I think that the evidence is there that would suggest that we have to start paying attention. Carbon emissions are clearly part of the problem."
"We will pay for this one way or another," Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC, Ret., a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said.
Adding, "We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we'll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll."
Navy Vice Adm. Richard H. Truly, USN, Ret., a shuttle astronaut and former NASA administrator, said in the report that "unlike the challenges that we are used to dealing with, these will come upon us extremely slowly, but come they will, and they will be grinding and inexorable."
He added, "Maybe more challenging is that climate change will affect every nation, and all simultaneously. This is why we need to study this issue now, so that we'll be prepared and not overwhelmed by the required scope of our response when the time comes."
The report recognizes that unabated climate change could bring an increased frequency of extreme storms, additional drought and flooding, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and the rapid spread of life-threatening disease.
While these projected effects are usually viewed as environmental challenges, the Military Advisory Board has looked at them from the perspective of national security assessments and has identified them as serious risk factors for:
- Massive migrations
- Increased border tensions
- Greater demands for rescue and evacuation efforts
- Conflicts over essential resources including food and water
Such developments could lead to direct U.S. military involvement, the board found.
The Military Advisory Board includes:
- Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., Military Advisory Board chairman, former Army chief of staff and current president of the Association of the United States Army
- Adm. Frank “Skip” Bowman, USN, Ret., former director of naval nuclear propulsion at the Naval Sea Systems Command
- Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell Jr., USAF, Ret., former deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, Headquarters U.S. Air Force
- Vice Adm. Paul G. Gaffney II, USN, Ret., former chief of naval research and head of the Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command
- Gen. Paul J. Kern, USA, Ret., former commanding general, U.S. Army Materiel Command
- Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, USN, Ret., former commander-in-chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and of Allied Forces, Southern Europe
- Adm. Donald L. Pilling, USN, Ret., former vice chief of naval operations and Navy chief financial officer
- Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, USN, Ret., former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command and former U.S. ambassador to China
- Vice Adm. Richard H. Truly, USN, Ret., former NASA administrator, shuttle astronaut and the first commander of the Naval Space Command
- Gen. Charles F. “Chuck” Wald, USAF, Ret., former deputy commander, U.S. Europe Command, and director of strategic planning and policy, Headquarters U.S. Air Force
- Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC, Ret., former commander, U.S. Central Command
The full report will be available at SecurityAndClimate.cna.org.