July 22, 2009 — Massive crop devastation, melting glaciers, water shortages, millions of displaced people -- all of these will drag the US military into conflict if global climate change goes unchecked, a Senate panel was warned today.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, convened by Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, focused on what so far has received only modest attention in the climate change debate: the effect it is bound to have on national defense.
"Addressing the consequences of changes in the Earth's climate is not simply about saving polar bears or preserving the beauty of mountain glaciers," retired Navy Vice Adm. Lee F. Gunn, president of the American Security Project, told the panel. "Climate change is a threat to our national security."
Gunn and other military specialists said that climate change could have broad effects on how the US military operates. It will likely expand the number of humanitarian missions the Pentagon will have to undertake, they said, and even change how it deploys its fighting forces.
For example, they warned that rising sea levels could swamp critical US military bases in the Indian Ocean and even the headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Va., which could be under water after just a one-meter rise in the ocean level.
From Africa to the Middle East and South Asia, dramatic changes in the weather will stress already unstable nations, creating what Gunn called "climate conflicts."
"International conflicts over resources, due to migrants, and/or as a means of distraction are not only likely," he added, "but likely to exacerbate the underlying climate change problem."
Kerry, since he took the helm of the committee earlier this year, has made addressing climate change a top priority. Several specialists said today that elevating the security aspect will help garner the kind of support necessary to make the difficult changes in energy and other global policies to stabilize the climate.
Sharon E. Burke, vice president for natural security at the Center for a New American Security, testified that the hearing was "an important demonstration of the fact that global climate change is now taken seriously as a strategic challenge."
Kerry, for his part, pledged to keep the shining the light on the issue.
"If we fail to connect the dots -- if we fail to take action -- the simple, indisputable reality is that we will find ourselves living not only in a ravaged environment, but also in a much more dangerous world," he said.
Correction: This item has been revised because of a reporting error that misstated the title for Sharon E. Burke, vice president for natural security at the Center for a New American Security.
Kerry's full opening statement is below:
KERRY'S PREPARED OPENING REMARKS
We are here today to discuss a grave and growing threat to global stability, human security, and America’s national security. As you will hear from all of today’s witnesses, the threat of catastrophic climate change is not an academic concern for the future.
It is already upon us, and its effects are being felt worldwide, right now. Earlier this year, a 25-mile wide ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Shelf to the Antarctic landmass shattered, disconnecting the Shelf from the Antarctic continent. In four years, the Arctic is projected to experience its first ice-free summer—not in 2030, but in 2013. The threat is real and fast approaching.
Just as 9-11 taught us the painful lesson that oceans could not protect us from terror, today we are deluding ourselves if we believe that climate change will stop at our borders.
Fortunately, America’s most trusted security voices—including those here today—have been sounding the alarm. In 2007, eleven former Admirals and high-ranking generals issued a seminal report from the Center for Naval Analysis, where Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn serves on the Military Advisory Board. They warned 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.”
This is 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. Places only too familiar with the instability, conflict, and resource competition that often create refugees and IDPs, will now confront these same challenges with an ever growing population of EDPs—environmentally displaced people. 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.
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.
Water from the Himalayas flows through India into Pakistan. India’s rivers are not only agriculturally vital, they are also central to its religious practice. Pakistan, for its part, is heavily dependent on irrigated farming. Even as our government scrambles to ratchet down tensions and prepares to invest billions to strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to deliver for its people—climate change is threatening to work powerfully in the opposite direction.
Worldwide, climate change risks making the most volatile places even more combustible. The Middle East is home to six percent of the world’s population but just two percent of the world’s water. A demographic boom and a shrinking water supply will only tighten the squeeze on a region that doesn’t need another reason to disagree.
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. These problems are not insurmountable, but they will be expensive, and they risk compromising our readiness.
Of course, the future has a way of humbling those who try to predict it too precisely. But we do know, from scientists and security experts, that the threat is very real. If we fail to connect the dots—if we fail to take action—the simple, indisputable reality is that we will find ourselves living not only in a ravaged environment, but also in a much more dangerous world.
We are honored to be joined today by an old friend who needs no introduction in these halls. John Warner served five terms as a US Senator from Virginia. He enlisted in the Navy at age 17, served as a sailor in World War Two, fought as a Marine in Korea, and rose to become Secretary of the Navy.
I met Secretary Warner when he presented me a Silver Star. Senator Warner became a friend, a colleague for twenty-four years, and one of the true gentlemen of this institution. When he retired and I was awarded his old office, Senator Warner’s gift to his fellow Navy man was a binnacle—a tool that sailors use to point out the right direction and light a path forward. Of course, none of us could ask for a better guide than Senator Warner’s own words and his life of service. I am pleased that he continues to use his extraordinary credibility to speak directly to the American people about the urgency of this issue.
Our other witnesses are impressive in their own right. A decorated 35-year veteran of the US Navy, Vice Admiral Lee Gunn now serves as President of the American Security Project.
Sharon Burke is Vice President for Natural Security at the Center for a New American Security, where she directs the Center’s work on the national security implications of global natural resources challenges.
Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn is a member of the CNA Military Advisory Board and former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Requirements and Programs. I look forward to hearing from each of you. But first let us turn to a Senator who, for years, has been a Senate leader in confronting non-traditional security challenges from loose nuclear material to food security: Senator Richard Lugar.