Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: ‘Climate Change Has A Dramatic Impact On National Security’

DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

by Arpita Bhattacharyya

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta joined the chorus of academics, policymakers, and security analysts concerned about the “dramatic” impacts of climate change on national security.

“Rising sea levels, severe droughts, the melting of the polar caps, the more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said Panetta at a recent event at the Environmental Defense Fund.

While Congress continues to waver on mitigation measures and debate the science, the U.S. defense, development, and diplomacy establishments are already grappling with the impacts of climate change in their work at home and abroad.

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review recognized climate change as an “accelerant of instability or conflict” and emphasized the challenges U.S. and partner militaries will face in light of rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, desertification and water scarcity.  USAID is working to integrate climate change into its development efforts, particularly in their agriculture and technology programs. And at the State Department, U.S. negotiators are exploring options to make the Green Climate Fund a reality to support climate change adaptation in vulnerable countries.

Understanding climate change and integrating its anticipated effects into our defense, development and diplomacy strategies will be crucial in addressing the security challenges that Panetta highlights. Crisis scenarios are made increasingly complex by the intersection of climate change with other geopolitical trends like human migration.

The Center for American Progress’s new report on Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in North Africa, part of CAP’s Climate, Migration, and Security Project, outlines exactly the sort of complex crisis Panetta forecasts. The report links Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Morocco as a contiguous region or “arc of tension” in which climate change impacts could exasperate existing conflicts and worsen migratory conditions.

Author and columnist Thomas Friedman also highlighted the implications of climate change in conflict scenarios in his recent piece on “The Other Arab Spring.”  While the exact casual relationships between climate and conflict have not been fully studied, both Friedman and Secretary Panetta realize that climate change must be factored into our assessments of national and regional security.

Water security, for example, is central to these challenges, as outlined in a new Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.:

During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.

The impacts of climate change, including salt intrusion, drought, and more frequent floods will continue to shape the already complex global water security scenari0.

It is clear that Secretary Panetta — indeed, virtually the entire military establishment — understands the security implications of climate change and is working to prepare the U.S. military for the challenges ahead. Congressional lawmakers need to wake up and address the problem with the same sense of urgency.

Arpita Bhattacharyya is Research Assistant to Distinguished Senior Fellow Carol Browner at the Center for American Progress. She works on both domestic and international climate and energy issues.

6 Responses to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: ‘Climate Change Has A Dramatic Impact On National Security’

  1. Joan Savage says:

    Panetta emphasized three concerns: costs of humanitarian and emergency relief, defense of the open Arctic, and rising fuel costs.

    The first of the three prompts a reminder that much of the Gulf Wars was initially borne by National Guard troops, who like the state militias of old, provided both themselves and their mobilizing equipment to the war zone.
    Back in the states, the absence of National Guard personnel and equipment was noticed when there weren’t enough of them to put out forest fires or organize a better evacuation from Hurricane Katrina.

    Combine that with the ODNI observation that US allies will experience water stresses in the next ten years. Countries may be asking us on an emergency basis for pontoon bridges, earth moving equipment, and the like.

    It’s quite a stretch, and as Panetta pointed out, we have a new boundary to defend more rigorously along the north coast of Alaska, while using more expensive fuel in any field of operation.

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    They have quite a bit to worry about….

    Research out of the U.S. Department of Defense focusing on five military bases, including Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, aims to develop a methodology that captures how to best evaluate a coast’s vulnerability to a rise in the sea level.

  3. prokaryotes says:

    The impact of climate change on the Ogallala Aquifer