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

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.