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Climate Change: A Threat to our National Security?

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took the world stage in October of this year asserting that climate change poses a national security threat to the United States. When confronted with the terrorist threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), most conservatives believe climate change is a topic that should take a back seat. So just how much does climate change affect our nation’s security?

It is important to first consider the impact climate change has on our planet. Climate change is a change in global or regional climate patterns attributed primarily to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels. Many regions have seen changes in the amount of rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. Our oceans and glaciers have also experienced significant changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising.

Quadrennial Defense Review, a Pentagon report released in 2014, outlines four areas of climate change deemed most threatening to the US – rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, more extreme weather, and rising sea levels. The report establishes a direct link between weather patterns and terrorism. Additionally, the report warns that as temperatures rise and severe weather increases, food, water and electricity shortages may create instability in countries, spreading disease, causing mass migration and opening the door for extremists to take advantage of such destabilization. In fact, some have already felt these effects. John Kerry noted that the climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa is already leading to conflicts over food and water and escalating longstanding regional and ethnic tensions into violent clashes. The increase in catastrophic weather events around the world creates more demand for American troops overseas. In the US, flooding and extreme weather events are expected to cause severe damage to ports and military bases.

The Pentagon report also notes that rising sea levels in the US may place the Navy’s coastal installations in danger. The White House released a National Climate Assessment report, citing Norfolk, Virginia as one of the cities most vulnerable to damage by rising sea levels. Norfolk is home to the world’s largest naval base as well as a nuclear submarine construction yard — all of which are vulnerable to destruction by rising sea levels.

With a direct link established between climate change and national security, President Obama introduced new regulations to reduce the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels. The new regulations aim to cut pollution from coal-fired power plants. The US Supreme Court upheld the Obama administration’s initiatives to curb greenhouse gases from major emitters, such as power plants and refineries, in a ruling that exempted some smaller sources from the regulation. In a 7-2 vote, the court rejected an industry-backed argument that most emitting facilities should not be regulated for greenhouse gases pursuant to a particular air pollution program of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While the US is taking the initiative to decrease its impact on climate change, only time will tell if other countries will follow suit. The national security concerns that accompany climate change will remain constant worldwide as tensions increase and regions encounter resultant disasters. Unless climate change is confronted by nations worldwide, resulting national security threats will remain an issue fore every country.

1 Pentagon calls climate change a matter of ‘national security’, FOX NEWS (October 14, 2013), 2 Climate change is happening, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (November 10, 2014), 3 Id. 4 Pentagon calls climate change a matter of ‘national security’, supra note 1. 5 Id. 6 Coral Davenport, Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers, NEW YORK TIMES (May 13, 2014), 7 Id. 8 Davenport, supra note 6. 9 Id. 10 Id. 11 Lawrence Hurley, Top court mostly upholds Obama bid to curb carbon emissions, REUTERS (June 23, 2014), 12 Id.

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