While on a visit last week to the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was asked by a reporter about his thoughts on the national security implications of climate change. Several themes came up, including the need for the intelligence community to track climate trends so that the national security community can understand the consequences of environmental and climate change. What is more, Secretary Panetta pointed specifically to emerging challenges in the Arctic, such as increased activity by countries seeking access to natural resources. Here is an excerpt from the transcript that is worth sharing in full:
Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you all for speaking to me. A 2008 Department of Defense report noted how climate change will impact current and future U.S. national security. The Department of Defense has been progressive in transitioning bases around the world -- solar panels, et cetera -- but the noted climate patterns in Somalia have led to some difficulties with Al Shabaab there. And so first, I was wondering if you could comment kind of on the unusual topic of climate change with regard to the future of the Department of Defense.
And then second, if you could help Senator Mitch McConnell accept that science and stop blocking that legislation. Thank you. (Applause.)
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I learned a long time ago, don’t mess around with people -- (laughs) -- you know, state what you think is right and hope that others will follow and be able to incorporate those thoughts in whatever they do. And I have tremendous respect for Mitch McConnell and I think that -- I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to discuss with him, not only this issue, but other issues as well.
With regards to climate change, the -- actually, what we developed at the CIA was an intelligence branch of the CIA that focused on that issue actually for intelligence purposes, because of the implications that these changes might have with regards to national security.
For example, when we incur greater droughts, when we incur areas that in fact have less rain and are incurring unusual climate impacts, it creates obviously an impact in terms of the population. It’s something we have to be aware of because that can create chaos. We’ve seen that happen in Africa. We’ve seen that happen in other parts of the world. So we need to have that kind of intelligence.
In addition, because of the ice melt, there are indications of a rising ocean. We’ve already seen that take place. And there our concern is how will that impact on ports, how will that impact on facilities, how will that impact on low line levels that could be impacted by that? So we continue to try to get intelligence on that as well.
In addition, obviously, we do look at the polar ice cap and are able through imagery to determine what’s happening with polar ice cap and just how quickly is it melting and what that impact will be. I can tell you. As the polar ice cap melts, the national security implications are that countries like Russia and others are going to be looking for the opportunity to go into those areas and try to go after the resources in the Arctic. They’ve already made claims to that effect.
So clearly as it melts, as those opportunities increase, then there are countries that are going to assert themselves, try to gain access to the resources that are there. That also constitutes an issue that relates to national security.
So from an intelligence point of view, it’s important for us to keep track of those trends. You know, this isn’t about the battle of climate change and the issues related to that. This is about what we are seeing happen and the intelligence that flows from that. And that is important for us to consider as we look at issues that can threaten America’s national security.
Secretary Panetta is often seen as a thought leader on the security implications of climate change. He formerly served as a co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, which is in part driven toward developing a better understanding of the links between oceans and climate change, and the consequences for economic and environmental well-being. While serving at the Central Intelligence Agency, then-Director Panetta established the agency’s Center for Climate Change and National Security, renewing an effort within the intelligence community to analyze the national security implications of climate change.