Science, Tech & Environment

Is climate change a bigger threat to our national security than terrorism?

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Credit: Reuters

Carla Santana, 38, collects water from a nearly dried-up well in Bomfim de Feira in Bahia state, northeast Brazil May 2, 2012. Water is just one reason militaries are considering climate change a potential threat to national security.

The new National Climate Assessment is sounding the alarm on climate change, but a Pew Research Center survey conducted last spring, found just 40 percent of Americans say global climate change was a major threat to their country.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, who now serves as CEO of the American Security Project (ASP), says climate change and national security aren't two separate issues. Cheney was the deputy executive secretary to defense secretaries Dick Cheney (no relation) and Les Aspin.

During his time at the Pentagon, he says defense plans did involve climate change, though there were no specific plans to directly counter environmental damage.

"In the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review that was put out in February, there are several pages that address climate change as a long-term threat that will create other threats to our stability here in this country, and will create instability worldwide," Cheney says.

Cheney says many military leaders already recognize the challenge climate change may bring, though a few holdouts still insist it won't do anything to impact the stability and security of our country.

"The insurrection in Mali where the Tuareg went north — drought caused that," he says. "It dried up their crops, they had to move, and they had to make a living. They went to northern Mali, and that started the insurrection there. We know for a fact, obviously, that climate change contributed to that drought. That's just one example of instability that was caused by climate change, but there are probably dozens of others."

Cheney says threats from climate change include catastrophic weather, which the US has already experienced.

"Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for instance, was the largest and most powerful typhoon, perhaps in history," he says. "The number one responder to that was the United States."

While the US military cannot fix every problem or address every insurrection, Gen. Cheney says the US does plan for humanitarian issues that come as a result of climate change.

"Long-term, we're interested in our own national security and that's the job of our Department of Defense," he says. "They do plan for humanitarian missions worldwide — we certainly do exercises every year with multiple countries talking about humanitarian assistance. We do some of that out of the goodness of the heart, and certainly we do some of that of the goodness of ourselves looking out for our own national security."

Other nations around the world already view this as a pressing issue. The ASP surveyed every country in the world and asked if climate change was included in their national security strategy — 70 percent of nations said that climate change was a direct threat to their own security. 

"We're not in this alone," Cheney says. "It's a wake-up call for us, but we're not in it by ourselves."

While Cheney says he doesn't foresee the Department of Defense creating a new division to combat the issues of a warming climate or extreme weather, he says the issue is beginning to get more attention.

"This one's rising to the top," he says. "It's taking on a lot more notoriety. There's a distinct overlap between energy and climate change, and the number one consumer of fossil fuels in the country is the Department of Defense, and perhaps the world. They're aware of that, they recognize their dependence on fossil fuels, and they also recognize their contribution to CO2. I'm not saying they're going to cut back because they want everything to be greener, they're going to cut back because they don't want to depend on fossil fuels."

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