Climate change: The new national security challenge

On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush famously received an intelligence briefing titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda terrorists tragically turned threat into reality.

Today, scientists tell us we have a 10-year window “” if even that “” before catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable and irreversible.

This is our intelligence briefing “” it tells us the threat is real and time is not on our side.

The national security threat posed by unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions is great (see “NYT: Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security” and “Quadrennial Defense Review Should Spark Interagency Climate Conversation“),  The threat is so clearcut that even the Bush Administration’s top intelligence experts were raising the alarm (see “The moving Fingar writes“).

And that’s why 33 generals and admirals announced support for the climate bill last month, asserting “Climate change is making the world a more dangerous place” and “threatening America’s security.”  Now, Sen. John Kerry has written a compelling op-ed explaining the grave national security threat posed by climate change and thus the urgent need to take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

If Vice President Cheney can argue that even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack is 100 percent justification for preemptive action, then, surely, when scientists tell us that climate change is nearly a 100 percent certainty we should join in an all-out effort to make ourselves safe.

Make no mistake “” this is an American national security challenge.

Climate change injects a new major source of chaos, tension and human insecurity into an already volatile world. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity, and staggering human displacement. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us.

Anyone who doubts the threat should talk to the 11 retired American admirals and generals who warned in 2007, “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national-security challenges for the United States.”

In their final national security analysis, the security planners in the Bush Administration recognized climate change among key trends that will shape U.S. defense policy in the coming years.

Just last week, former United States Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander William Fallon warned that, left unchecked, climate change will “be significantly destabilizing to our future.”

Another Former CENTCOM Commander Anthony Zinni put it simply: “We will pay for this one way or another. 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.”

Heed the warnings of the National Intelligence Council “” the U.S. intelligence community’s think tank “” which concluded “global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national-security interests over the next 20 years.”

Nowhere is the connection between climate and security more direct than in South Asia, home to al Qaeda.

Scientists now warn the Himalayan glaciers, which supply fresh water to a billion people in India and Pakistan, will face severe impacts from climate change. India’s rivers are not only vital to its agriculture but also critical to its religious practice. Pakistan, for its part, depends on irrigated farming to avoid famine.

At a moment when our government is scrambling to ratchet down tensions across that strategically vital region, climate change could work powerfully in the opposite direction. Failure to tackle climate change risks much more than a ravaged environment: It risks a much more dangerous world and a gravely threatened America.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Washington appreciates the stakes.

If a politician completely dismissed or denied the threat of terrorism, he or she would be sent home in the next election. But there are seemingly few political consequences if you dismiss the science or the threat of climate change.

Here’s one fact that should awaken every rock-ribbed defense hawk to the stakes: There will always be excuses to wait, but every day that Washington fails to price carbon and embrace clean energy, America sends another $100 million to Iran. That’s not a choice America can afford.

Last week, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and I unveiled the American Power Act, a comprehensive energy and climate approach that sends the price signal on carbon that the market needs to unleash America’s entrepreneurial energy.

In 2010, that is the test of a serious policy to combat climate change.

When our admirals and generals warn that failure to act will put America and the world in danger, it is clearer than ever:  This is our August 2001 memo. These are our warnings. The time to act on them is now.

Kerry is the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee

26 Responses to Climate change: The new national security challenge

  1. Zach P says:

    So, what happens when sea levels rise enough to bury our commercial (and naval) ports underwater? I hope every country is self-sufficient in food, at least, by then.

  2. prokaryote says:

    “Make no mistake — this is an American national security challenge.”

    Yes it is, but it is also a global challenge – challenge to the global infrastructre and the related supplies, something which drives economy.

    While china prepares as the number one leader in renewable energy tech, the US and other countrys ( the UK just announced to be EU leader in RE.), the chances are lacking due to manifastion of out of date tech.

    There is no future without sustainabilty and at the same time this new technologies will drive the same opportunities as the one we relay now.

    You need to update your technology – this is the single most importend thing todo – RIGHTNOW.

    Tax Co-2, Bann Off Shore drilling and stop/prevent further fossil exploitation. Invest into clean energy and subsidies can further contribute and help to transist to a saver and more reliable energy future. This contributes to health, security and is the KEY for the next economic boom.

    If you miss this importend update, you will see terror orginated from unprecedented climate change – through out the entire globe.

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe, OT there is something wrong or different in the “related posts” section at the end of this post.

    The format is different, a couple labels are missing, some “edit” buttons.

    [JR: Oops!]

  4. mike roddy says:

    Kerry figured this out a long time ago, and this OpEd is a good summary of the serious threat we face.

    I wonder why he has been unable to persuade seemingly openminded Senators like Snowe and Grassley. Private dinners over wine may be called for. Nothing else appears to be working to win over Senators who appear to take at least some responsibility for their actions.

  5. Raul says:

    Yes, there was terror on their faces and a deep sense of being beaten
    out of their hard work to have the best they could have. During those
    storms and now some see a new force of ruin.
    The plan is for storms again this year around here.
    I’m still not sure I’m over that one that passed by some time ago that had
    the lowest pressure reading in history. It didn’t hit here but how to
    plan if it did.
    Sorry not much help with it.
    What are the best ways to plan?

  6. prokaryote says:

    “What are the best ways to plan?”

    Putting in prospect our current path you should prepare for anarchy – a several thousand years lasting apocalyptic event. Plus we have the possibility to enter the venus-syndrom. Also see Dr. Lovelock’s advise.

  7. Gary says:

    Plan “B” …..the national security threat imposed by climate change requires the president to invoke his or her constitutional obligation
    to mitigate said threat by the following means………..?

  8. Peter says:

    Curious to know why my comment isn’t being posted.

  9. Peter says:

    Important to keep in mind that as it’s currently proposed, AMERICAN POWER ACT creates a new reliance on the natural gas (NG) and nuclear industries and continues to build momentum as a result of the Gulf Coast oil spill catastrophe. Specific to the NG industry, we do not presently have the regulatory oversight to keep pace, or even properly investigate, the current NG drilling boom processes or the resulting health/ecological issues quietly occurring in the US. The “Halliburton” loophole of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, aka “Dick Cheney Energy Lobbyist Bill,” stripped any REAL Fed authority for regulation/enforcement and exempted the hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”) process chemicals/fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Water Act, Clean Air Act, CERCLA and Superfund. If these chemicals are as safe as the NG industry claims, why the need for any exemption and the $MMs spent on PR, lobbyists and political campaign financing at state and federal levels? Current NG production processes do NOT reflect the “clean” and “safe” transitional fuel source we’re being sold.

  10. Peter says:

    Call your State and Federal legislators to repeal this O&G-friendly loophole (support and broaden 2009’s proposed FRAC Act) and request that they strengthen regulatory oversight, enforcement and penalty and place a moratorium on the NG industry process of fracing until we better understand all the ecological and health risks involved. Get involved locally and spread awareness within your community organizations. It’s time to demand real accountability and true transparency from corporations and government in our country.

    Learn more about the NG drilling industry’s hazardous chemicals being released into our air, soil and water and their affects on our health.


  11. Peter says:

    More about the obstructionism and hazardous chemicals used by the NG industry.
    Climate Progress:
    Endocrine Disruption Exchange:

  12. We have known for several years that GW is a severe national security issue, former CIA Director James Woolsey sent me his assessment of it almost two years ago, but the bill that Kerry and Lieberman developed is useless to fight GW. It may be the best they or any senator could achieve but it aims to cuts CO2 by only 4% to 6 % compare to the yesterday’s British proposal to cut it by 30% by 2020.*

    With all due respect to the hard working senators, their bill is a band aid and not more. And for those who say we can make is more robust later, there is very little time left, as we all know.
    Wishful thinking in this critical time on this crucial issue is not helpful

    *“The UK government will push the EU to move to a higher target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It will urge the EU to cut emissions by 30% from 1990 levels by 2020, rather than the current 20% target, partly through more support for renewables.”

    To grasp the time-criticality you may want to read:

  13. paulm says:

    That report is 10yrs old! Havent they written one since?

  14. Bob W says:

    Fox News will be interesting in the near future: Their erroneous talking points that the world has cooled since ’98 and that arctic ice is back are being shattered monthly, and now 33 top admirals and generals have joined the “socialist” global warming “conspiracy”. That’s a lot of people to add to the smear list.

  15. prokaryote says:

    Matania, maybe i missing something but isn’t the emission target 80%? And things can speed up as we likely have to implement carbon negative approaches, such as biochar – aswell.

    “15% below 2005 (at 1990 levels) by 2020, 80% below 2005 (77% below 1990) by 2050”

  16. prokaryote says:

    I agree Kerry-Lieberman “Capped Sectors: 17% below 2005 by 2020, 80% below 2005 by 2050, plus accelerated mitigation of super-GHGs, black carbon”, should focus more on mid-term (till 2020) reduction then just the “17%”.

  17. BobSmith says:

    Although, this bill seems painfully minimal, I think the actual affect of it will be much greater. We can’t wait for something more perfect, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to make something better, but, take for example the House bill that was passed -a year ago- we are only now seeing an alternative.

  18. Alex Smith says:

    It is my opinion, privately backed by some climate scientists, – without a revolutionary cut in fossil fuel emissions, we are heading to a Greenhouse World not seen for millions of years.

    Think the Cretaceous, the time of the Dinosaurs, 100 million years ago. 20 degrees F hotter.

    Is there a self-regulating system on Earth that will prevent even higher temperatures? A new book out by Dr. Melanie Lenart, “Life in the Hothouse – How A Living Planet Survives Climate Change” examines some hope, looking at mechanisms that have worked before. Even hurricanes might help distribute the heat, while plants may moderate things, if we let them.

    I run an extended interview with Dr. Lenart (from the University of Arizona) in this week’s Radio Ecoshock. Download/listen to the 1 hour program at

    Sorry Joe, but it’s right on topic.

    In a different vein, we are seeing the real grit of Congressman Ed Markey from Massachusetts. He says the ocean does NOT belong to BP, and got live video of the leak posted for us all. Markey has been slaving away on the global warming issue, and the Waxman-Markey Bill, for years.

    The press has hardly covered the broad testimony before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which Markey chairs. Yet the best scientists, and some of the worst fossil CEO’s, have all been brought on record as the Committee does the homework for all of us.

    I admit I’m a fan of his work, and now the whole country can see it in the confrontation and fact-finding with BP. We need a lot more like him.

    Alex Smith
    Radio Ecoshock

  19. prokaryote says:

    Thanks Alex.

    The Vanishing Face of Gaia

    Related to the nonlinearity of the climate system – memristive systems

  20. mike roddy says:

    Bob W, #14,

    Fox will have no problem finessing this. They were wrong about everything else too, including the glorious victory in Iraq and the need to drill offshore as fast as we can. Ratings were not damaged when they were shown to be idiots, because it’s all about the spin, and the American public has trouble telling the difference. Meanwhile, reporters who sensed trouble with Iraq, such as Koppel and Rather, became marginalized.

    Alex #18,

    Good one, thanks. Of course our leaders are supposed to address the ruin scenario. They are not, and will be judged as total incompetents by surviving historians.

  21. Dan B says:

    The scenarios most people quote for climate change are: Glaciers (Himalayan &/or Polar) melting. These events will happen slowly, for the most part. Rising sea levels and drying rivers in Asia will be slow. Make no mistake, I’m concerned about the human tragedy that would ensue. Our message, particularly when we’re talking about security of the US and world, should focus on events likely to be shockingly rapid: massive drought in the breadbasket of America, or massive storms at harvest.

    What would the loss of these essential grains do to citizens of the US? What would a 10% shortage mean. What would it mean for food supplies worldwide? We’re already experiencing food riots in dozens of countries. What about here as well?

    Massive forest fires in the west are on the list. What would people in rural areas do if their escape routes were cut off?

    In order to get the attention of the average person we must focus on changes that will be rapid and link them to catastrophic impacts on our economy, security, and ability of government to maintain order.

    My point is that security is easy to maintain if you have a slow steady change. It’s impossible when they’re shocks.

  22. Roger says:

    I’m happy to note that we have at least two great, climate-aware, US-level (and numerous MA-level) politicians here in Massachusetts. We are working to get our new senator, Scott Brown, up to speed on this.

    Senator Kerry and Congressman Markey know the wild ways of Washington, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for all they have done so far.

    As Senator Kerry has told some of us, he has pushed his fellow senators on climate as far as their home-state constituents will allow.

    So, it’s not a lack of backbone on Senator Kerry’s part, it is a lack of climate education for constituents that is creating the legislative logjam.

    That’s why we need President Obama to do more of what he is now starting to do: To speak out loudly and clearly, best on national, primetime TV, to inform misinformed Americans of the clear reality, grave seriousness, and lives-at-stake urgency of dealing with climate change NOW!

    Hey, Obama, lead the nation,
    give us climate edu-ca-tion!

    You’re the man!


  23. prokaryote says:

    ” – My point is that security is easy to maintain if you have a slow steady change. It’s impossible when they’re shocks.”

    The system becomes more chaotic and increasing once rare phenomenon.
    For example Isaac Asimov wrote in “Our Angry Earth”, about microburst becoming more frequent. Everything in the system is affected negativly. Because evolution optimized current lifeforms to the balanced climate state we had. You cannot maintain security (particular energy & food) under certain conditions – not under the current civilization setup and emission path.

    A microburst often causes aircraft to crash when they are attempting to land (the above mentioned Pan Am flight is a notable exception). The microburst is an extremely powerful gust of air that, once hitting the ground, spreads in all directions. As the aircraft is coming in to land, the pilots try to slow the plane to an appropriate speed. When the microburst hits, the pilots will see a large spike in their airspeed, caused by the force of the headwind created by the microburst. A pilot inexperienced with microbursts would try to decrease the speed. The plane would then travel through the microburst, and fly into the tailwind, causing a sudden decrease in the amount of air flowing across the wings. The decrease in airflow over the wings of the aircraft causes a drop in the amount of lift produced. This decrease in lift combined with a strong downward flow of air can cause the thrust required to remain at altitude to exceed what is available.

  24. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Prokaryote at #17 –

    “I agree Kerry-Lieberman “Capped Sectors: 17% below 2005 by 2020, 80% below 2005 by 2050, plus accelerated mitigation of super-GHGs, black carbon”, should focus more on mid-term (till 2020) reduction then just the “17%”.”

    There’s something here that just doesn’t add up. Namely the degree of opposition and the timidity of democrat support for the bill.

    Consider, the target for 2020, as you’re no doubt well aware, is of 3.67% off the legal 1990 baseline – of which around 2% has already occurred by happenstance – leaving just 1.67% outstanding.

    Not only is 1.67% by 2020 well within the predictable change due to CAFE tightening, to non-national actions and to commercial projects, it is surely also well within a margin of error: how accurate is the annual record of national plowed-soil emissions, let alone forest wildfire and Alaskan permafrost outputs ?

    Also, it is a target for ten years hence, when the great majority of business and politics has time horizons less than half of that. And there have been shrill critiques of the get-outs provided to major emitter industries until 2030, as well as the bill’s inclusion of avoidance-by-foreign-offsets.

    If this were just a partisan-politics obstruction then the democrats, led by a highly eloquent president, would have everything to gain by playing:
    the national security card,
    and the peak-fossil-energy-supply card,
    and the climate-dependent industries card,
    and the childrens’ heritage card,
    and the wildlife conservation/creation-respect card,
    and the global food-security/African-famine card,
    as well as the the only card being played, albeit timidly and belatedly, namely that of techno-leadership/employment.

    What is more, the GOP can’t sensibly be assumed to be deaf to the warnings, particularly to those out of the pentagon and retired military. Some, such as Gingrich, are merely obsessive partisan deniers of course, but the cogent threat that warming undoubtedly poses to US power and prosperity overall is not one that serious republicans would readily ignore.

    The very unanimity and volume of opposition, with a single senator as the exception, alongside the desultry efforts of the democrat establishment, strengthens the argument that something doesn’t add up here.

    So I wonder how much of the bizarre conduct we’re observing is merely circus, and actually has no significant basis in domestic politics ?



  25. prokaryote says:

    ” – Consider, the target for 2020, as you’re no doubt well aware, is of 3.67% off the legal 1990 baseline – of which around 2% has already occurred by happenstance – leaving just 1.67% outstanding.”

    I wasn’t aware of this and hope it will have more magnitude – effectiveness. Emission targets should be set in order with the situation and not some specific calendar year. The dynamic of the change needs accountability.

    ” – What is more, the GOP can’t sensibly be assumed to be deaf to the warnings, particularly to those out of the pentagon and retired military. Some, such as Gingrich, are merely obsessive partisan deniers of course, but the cogent threat that warming undoubtedly poses to US power and prosperity overall is not one that serious republicans would readily ignore.”

    I can just agree with you and wonder myself. Let’s hope that a bill will open the gate and create momentum. We reached a critical mass and entered a phase of act when it comes to climate change action. This is from the persistent situation we became aware of. The problem nature, orignates from us, this will force us to accelerate processes as needed, in the same way as climate change happens. Importend is the first step, because it is so hard. Importend is that we get true about what is required. So i belive once the USA has it’s comprehensive clean climate & energy bill, things will change.

  26. I think that breaking the addiction to fossil fuels is the most important part of any country’s national security policy.

    In terms of action on climate disruption, it appears that even if we should we take the position of a rational skeptic, we have two potential outcomes and two possible choices in addressing each outcome:

    Potential Outcome A – Climate disruption is either precisely calculated or underestimated in its breadth and effect.

    Choice 1 – We do nothing. Result: We all suffer for generations to come and consequences are catastrophic. Summary: Disaster.

    Choice 2 – We do everything we can to change our ways. Result: We give up time and money to make the changes, but we avert disaster and live far more comfortably with minimized consequences – and we reap the benefits of less pollution and greater efficiency. To sum up: work hard and succeed.

    Potential Outcome B – Climate disruption is substantially overblown in its breadth and effect.

    Choice 1 – We do nothing. Result: We continue to poison the biosphere and suffer the consequences of a poisoned environment, and not those that arise from a parched and deluged environment. To sum up: No improvement.

    Choice 2 – We do everything we can to change our ways. Result: We lose time and money making changes in our infrastructure and way of life, and yet still enjoy the results of increased efficiencies and drops in pollution even though the catastrophe never materialized. To sum up: We struggle more than we needed to, but we still come out way ahead.

    By the potential outcomes and choices listed, the one reasonable option (where there’s any doubt at all about the potential outcomes) is doing everything we can to lower our emissions – and we’ll then benefit in either potential outcome. The alternative – to do nothing – leaves us on the pitiful and poisonous road we’re now on, with the strong likelihood of widespread misery for generations.

    This logic is similar to that of buying insurance. You pay for it though you might not need it – and if you do ever need it, you’ll be really very sad if you don’t have it.

    I’m curious what a rational and informed position might be to support doing nothing – I’ve yet to see one.

    There is, however, a clear line to be drawn between entrepreneurship and capitalism that’s a very valid consideration that needs to be addressed here. This clear line appears in the predictable struggle that occurs between the innovative and free-thinking entrepreneurs and researchers on the one hand, and the regressive monopolies that develop as the end-point result of capitalism on the other. Aging and swollen behemoths will do all they can to control, prevent or sabotage competitive ventures and research by any means necessary, and history is littered with their successes.

    Socrates, Galileo, Nikolai Tesla’s DC power, Henry Ford’s original ethanol engines, the Tucker automobile, the Red Car trolleys of Los Angeles, and the commercially enforced restrictions on the use of the metal hydride battery – all illustrate what pre-existing power structures can do to creative thinkers, their discoveries, and the technologies they develop.

    There are truly promising and proven alternative energy technologies out there now that deserve our attention – chief among them in my estimation: solar thermal plants that use molten salt as a medium for heat exchange and for storing energy. One hundred of these, placed across the Sunbelt from California to the east coast, each ten and a half miles on a side, could use DC transmission to satisfy all our present electricity needs everywhere in the country.

    Take a look here if you’d like to know more:

    Additionally, here’s another national security factor to consider, that’s completely independent of climate disruption. Kerry touched on it when he talked about giving $100 million a day to Iran. As of December 2002 – when the military plans and pre-positioning of guns, bullets and boots for the Iraq War had already fully commenced – over 80% of the world’s oil reserves were (and still are) inside the borders of just sixteen countries. These top sixteen oil powers had about 972 billion barrels of total oil reserves. Out of this, 69.98% was inside the war-torn and unstable Middle East. (I’ve not thrown in Canada’s 180 billion barrels with this data because over 96% of it is locked up in tar sands, and getting it out is too expensive in both money and energy, and far too polluting.) We ranked 11th among those 16 oil nations with a mere 2.33% of their total. Iraq ranked #2 just behind Saudi Arabia.

    India and China each have over a billion people rapidly chasing after our energy intensive way of life, and fossil energy just can’t be drawn from the ground quickly enough to satisfy that demand.

    To read more on oil supply and demand go to:

    We can’t continue to rely on our armed forces (the biggest single source of demand for oil in America, by the way) to capture and protect foreign oil for our use, and we have to accelerate the development of the advanced alternative innovations and industry that other nations will need when petroleum slips into the past as the dominant source energy on the planet.

    Seeing the tightening grip that an increasingly one-voiced and dumbed-down “mainstream” media has on the public’s thinking on these and other crucial matters, I’m heartened by venues like Climate Progress that focus honestly on the important issues of our time, and give us all valuable information and the opportunity to talk it over.

    Craig Shields, Editor,