The Clear and Present Danger Is Calling

It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and sleeping. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world….The 44th President, groggily: “Hello?”

Voice: “Mr(s) President, we have a situation.”

President: “Terrorists?”

Voice: “No, it’s the climate again. Another series of tornadoes has struck Manhattan. There’s massive damage and loss of life and a complete power outage.”

President: “Well, call FEMA.”

Voice: “I’m afraid FEMA is fully deployed on the Gulf Coast responding to Katrina II.”

President: “What about the National Guard?”

Voice: “Most of them are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who are still in country have been deployed to fight the massive outbreak of wildfires in the West.”

President: “We’d better call the Cabinet together…”

Voice: “That’s going to be a problem, too, Mr(s) President. The Secretary of Energy is in Atlanta trying to figure out how to get power restored in the southeast, now that there’s too little water to cool the region’s nuclear reactors. The Secretary of Health and Human Services is in Florida, working with the Governor on the malaria outbreak. It’s the latest epidemic since the disease vectors began moving in.”

President: “What about the locals. Can’t they handle it?”

Voice: “Well, as you know, federal grants for state and local preparedness have been declining for years. Local hospitals and public officials simply don’t have adequate resources.”

President: “All right. Where’s the rest of the Cabinet?”

Voice: “The Secretary of Agriculture is in Africa working with the United Nations on the famine and the Secretary of Defense is overseeing the defense of our military bases. At last report, they’re still managing to hold off the climate refugees trying to overrun our bases for food and water.”

President: “Are you telling me that we’re unprepared for this?”

Voice: “I’m afraid that’s correct, Mr(s) President. We’ve seen it coming for years, but it just hasn’t been our highest priority.”

* * *

Hillary Clinton’s “red telephone” ad apparently was successful in raising the national security fear factor just before the recent primaries. But two important elements were missing from the script.


First, we never heard what the crisis was. Second, since we didn’t know the nature of the crisis, we couldn’t judge whether any of the three viable presidential candidates is qualified to respond. There’s a good chance that in the years ahead, that 3 a.m. phone call will alert the President to a national security threat unlike those of the past — a clear and present danger linked to global climate change.

If this sounds like Chicken Little, consider these warnings from people who should know:

Former President Bill Clinton in Glasgow, Scotland, May 16, 2006:“The most profound security threat we face today is global warming. There may be other terrorist acts, and some of those acts may involve small-scale biological chemical or nuclear attacks. (But) there has never been a nation destroyed by terrorism alone and it’s not about to start now…. I think this climate change has the capacity to change the way all of us live on earth.”

Former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, President, United Nations Foundation:“Oil dependence and climate change pose enormous risks to the U.S. economy and national security. They are ticking time bombs and each will take a long time to address — which makes it all the more urgent to begin.”

Admiral Anthony Zinni and 10 other retired U.S. Flag Officers:“Global climate change presents a serious national security threat which could impact Americans at home, impact US military operations, and heighten global tensions…. During our decades of experience in the U.S. military, we have addressed many national security challenges…. Global climate change presents a new and very different type of national security challenge…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. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay.”


Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security:“Although the consequences of global climate change may seem to be the stuff of Hollywood — some imagined, dystopian future — the melting ice of the Arctic, the spreading deserts of Africa, and the swamping of low lying lands are all too real. We already live in an ‘age of consequences,’ one that will increasingly be defined by the intersection of climate change and the security of nations….

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that climate change will not be a problem for affluent countries, including the United States. Such nations may also face dire conditions such as permanent agricultural disruptions, endemic disease, ferocious storm patterns, deep droughts, the disappearance of vast tracks of coastal land, and the collapse of ocean fisheries, which could well trigger a profound loss of confidence in the most advanced and richest states. Any location on Earth is potentially vulnerable to the cascading and reinforcing negative effects of global climate change…

Unchecked global climate change will disrupt a dynamic ecological equilibrium in ways that are difficult to predict. The new ecosystem is likely to be unstable and in continual flux for decades or longer…. Climate change is likely to worsen existing tensions, especially over natural resources, and possibly lead to conflict. Indeed, this magnifying of existing problems by climate change is already taking place, from desertification in Darfur, to water shortages in the Middle East, to disruptions of monsoons in South Asia and attendant struggles over land and water use. These and other effects are likely to increase and intensify in the years ahead.”

Sen. Dick Durbin:“For years, too many of us have viewed global warming as simply an environmental or economic issue. We now need to consider it as a security concern…. Failing to plan for the geopolitical consequences of global warming would be a serious mistake.”

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):“If the impact of climate change is going to make regions of violence poorer, then they really provide a level of fertility for inciting disaffection, resentment against the prosperous world. That’s an indirect effect that can create the conditions for terrorism…. As the most powerful and most prosperous nation on Earth, it is for the U.S. to take a global view of what strategically might minimize the possibility of threats to national security…. Climate change is not something in the future. It’s already here. And every part of the globe is going to be affected. We will have an increase in extreme events. We’re likely to have problems with respect to water supplies in the U.S. We have to tell the people of the U.S. that this is something intimately connected with their present and their future. The cost of inaction is going to be far higher than action.”

* * *

There’s little evidence so far that any of the three leading presidential candidates is prepared for crises of this type. But the more important issue is this: Which of the candidates will make a commitment to rapidly prepare themselves and the nation? And which elected officials in the White House and Congress will lead us in aggressive efforts to slow and reverse greenhouse gas emissions, preventing the security threats of climate change — not to mention the potential for humanitarian tragedies — from growing even worse?


These questions are getting far too little attention in the campaign. And while the candidates may disagree on who is best qualified to answer the phone, surely they can agree on this: The best 3 a.m. phone call is the one that never has to happen.

— Bill B.