John Kerry: Climate Change Is Our Greatest Long-Term Security Threat

Our guest blogger is Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

We all know about the August 2001 memo warning President Bush that terrorists were determined to strike inside the US. Thirty-six days later, they did. Well, today scientists tell us we have a ten-year window — if even that — before catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable and irreversible. We have to use the narrow window we have to forestall a crisis while we still can. We have to connect the dots, and we have to act. I agree with my friend Dick Armitage’s assessment on future national threats to the United States:

If I had to say what might be the biggest long term threat I’d say it might be climate change.

In 2007, eleven former Admirals and high-ranking generals issued a report from the Center for Naval Analysis warning that climate change is a “threat multiplier” with “the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today.” General Anthony Zinni, former commander of our forces in the Middle East, was characteristically blunt. He warned that without action — and I quote:

[W]e will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll.

Why? Because climate change injects a major new 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 human displacement on a staggering scale. We risk fanning the flames of failed-statism, and offering glaring opportunities to the worst actors in our international system. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us.


We all know Darfur’s genocide is a brutal choice made by leaders in Khartoum. But the conflict between the so-called “Arabs” and “Africans” has its roots in shifts in climate over the last four decades. Inch by inch, year by year, the desert consumed already scarce farmland, forcing farmers and herders to compete over ever-dwindling resources. Eventually the desert had grown by 60 miles, rainfall diminished by as much as 30%, and tensions arose. This is one example of how climate change contributes to a more dangerous world.

Nowhere is the nexus between today’s threats and climate change more acute than in South Asia–the home of Al Qaeda and the center of our terrorist threat. Scientists are now warning that the Himalayan glaciers, which supply water to almost a billion people from China to Afghanistan, could disappear completely by 2035. At a moment when the American government is scrambling to ratchet down tensions and preparing to invest billions to strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to deliver for its people — it’s infuriating to think that climate change could work so powerfully in the opposite direction.

Privately, we already hear the simmering resentment of diplomats whose countries bear the costs of our emissions. I can tell you from my own experience: it is real, and it is prevalent. It’s not hard to see how this could crystallize into a virulent, dangerous, public anti-Americanism. That’s a threat, too. Remember: the very places least responsible for climate change — and least equipped to deal with its impacts — will be among the very worst affected.

Closer to home, there is scarcely an instrument of American foreign policy that will be untouched by a changing climate. Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean, a vital hub for our military operations across the Middle East, sits on an atoll just a few feet above sea level. Norfolk, VA, home to our Atlantic Fleet, will be submerged by one meter of sea level rise. All of our Navy’s piers are actually cemented to the ocean floor — which means that any rise in sea level will literally require the Navy to rebuild all of them. Are these problems insurmountable? No. But they will be expensive, and they risk compromising our readiness.

Unfortunately, not everyone in our domestic politics appreciates the stakes. So we live in a country where if you dismiss the threat posed by terrorism, you would be laughed out of the political mainstream. But if you dismiss the threat of climate change, you might just find yourself a leadership position inside the Republican Party. Armitage doesn’t think that “politicians have the courage to really take dramatic steps.” That needs to change.


If myself, Al Gore, and thousands of scientists and security experts and leaders around the world are wrong, we still have global development, clean air, vibrant new industries, healthier citizens, and no more addiction to the foreign oil that funds despots and terrorists. But if the deniers and delayers are wrong, we face not only a ravaged environment, but also a much more dangerous world. Folks, is there even a choice here?