Home » climate and security » On the Record: Climate Change as a Security Risk According to U.S. Administration Officials

On the Record: Climate Change as a Security Risk According to U.S. Administration Officials

Obama_Bush_and_ClintonUnder both Republican and Democratic Administrations, leaders in the U.S. foreign policy and national security establishment have recognized the security risks of climate change, and have become increasingly active in arguing for a response commensurate to the threat. Below is a sampling of statements, and actions, regarding the security risks of climate change, by some of our current and past foreign policy and national security leaders. This is by no means a complete list, but it is a good reminder that climate change is far more than an environmental concern. See Jill Fitzsimmons’ post from last year for more.

Secretary of State, John Kerry (May, 2013)

“And at the top of that list of shared challenges which does not get enough attention…a principal challenge to all of us of life and death proportions is the challenge of climate change…So it’s not just an environmental issue and it’s not just an economic issue. It is a security issue, a fundamental security issue that affects life as we know it on the planet itself, and it demands urgent attention from all of us.”

National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon (April, 2013)

“The national security impacts of climate change stem from the increasingly severe environmental impacts it is having on countries and people around the world…The fact that the environmental impacts of climate change present a national security challenge has been clear to this Administration from the outset.”

U.S. Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance, Michael Camuñez, (April, 2013)

“Extreme weather events can damage agricultural production as we know, paralyze the transport of goods and services, and result in an economic loss that reverberates across the globe.  Therefore, protecting our ecosystem and improving the management of our resources are at the core of our regional security and economic prosperity alike.  And certainly participating States, like all nations of the world, face the challenge of climate change and global warming, which is perhaps the paramount existential security threat facing us all today.”

U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper (March, 2013)

“Terrorists, militants and international crime groups are certain to use declining local food security to gain legitimacy and undermine government authority. Intentional introduction of a livestock or plant disease could be a greater threat to the United States and the global food system than a direct attack on food supplies intended to kill humans. So there will almost assuredly be security concerns with respect to health and pandemics, energy and climate change. Environmental stresses are not just humanitarian issues. They legitimately threaten regional stability.”

Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear (March, 2013)

Significant upheaval related to the warming planet “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.’’

And: “While the Indo-Asia Pacific today is relatively at peace, I am concerned by a number of security challenges that have the possibility to impact the security environment…Examples include, climate change, where increasingly severe weather patterns and rising sea levels, along with inevitable earthquakes and tsunamis’ and super-typhoons, and massive flooding threaten today and will continue to threaten populations in the future in this region.”

Former Secretary of State, George Shultz (March, 2013)

“There are huge changes that are in the works if we don’t moderate what’s going on. Changes in heat levels. Some places can get very, very hot, and we’ve already experienced some of that. Even Vladimir Putin got out of Moscow a couple summers ago. So you’ve got that problem…I’m a marine, and during World War II I flew over the Pacific, and we flew over those islands, and they’re just little islands out there in the ocean…So you can create conditions that lead people to want to fight about things. If I suddenly find that I am losing all my land, I want to get somebody else’s.”

Former Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, Tom Ridge (R-PA) (February, 2013)

“The U.S. national security community, including leaders from the military, homeland security, and intelligence, understand that climate change is a national security threat… They’re not talking about whether or not it is occurring – it is… They’re talking about addressing the problem and protecting the American people. It’s time Washington does the same.”

Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano (July, 2012)

“You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer…You could always have one abnormal summer. But when you see one after another after another then you can see, yeah, there’s a pattern here.”

Former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta (May, 2012)

“Our mission at the Department is to secure this nation against threats to our homeland and to our people.  In the 21st Century, the reality is that there are environmental threats which constitute threats to our national security.  For example, the area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security:  rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

Former Commander of U.S. European Command, Admiral James G. Stavridis, USN (ret) (March, 2012)

“Climate change in the Arctic makes it one of the world’s most rapidly changing environments. As the volume of Arctic sea ice decreases, access continues to increase permitting maritime traffic into areas previously impassable without specialized vessels. This new access is creating opportunities for transit, development, and natural resource extraction. While some see these changes as a potential breeding ground for conflict, we see the risk of armed conflict as low, and continue to approach the Arctic as an area of cooperation among Arctic nations.”

Former Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Robert F. Willard, USN (ret) (February, 2012)

“The U.S. alliance with Australia anchors USPACOM’s strategy in Oceania. Australia, with additional contributions from New Zealand, invests extensively in security and assistance efforts in this sub-region. The Australian continent notwithstanding, most of Oceania is comprised of Pacific Island nations spread across the vast expanse of the South Pacific Ocean. Security challenges associated with natural resources in this sub-region tend to predominate. In particular, illegal fishing, resource damage attributed to climate change and global warming, and the susceptibility of low lying island nations to typhoons and tsunamis define USPACOM and U.S. Coast Guard approaches to engagement in Oceania, often in concert with Australian and New Zealand actions.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice (July, 2011)

“In this Council we have discussed many emerging security issues and addressed them, from the links between development and security to HIV-AIDS. Yet this week, we have been unable to reach consensus on even a simple Presidential Statement that climate change has the potential to impact peace and security in the face of the manifest evidence that it does. We have dozens of countries in this body and in this very room whose very existence is threatened. They’ve asked this Council to demonstrate our understanding that their security is profoundly threatened. Instead, because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this Council is saying, by its silence, in effect, “Tough luck.” This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic. It’s shortsighted, and frankly it’s a dereliction of duty.”

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, USN (ret) (October, 2010)

“The scarcity of and potential competition for resources like water, food and space, compounded by an influx of refugees if coastal lands are lost, does not only create a humanitarian crisis but creates conditions of hopelessness that could lead to failed states and make populations vulnerable to radicalization. These challenges highlight the systemic implications and multiple-order effects inherent in energy security and climate change.”

Former Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command under President George W. Bush, Admiral John Nathman, USN (ret) (October, 2009)

“There are serious risks to doing nothing about climate change. We can pay now or we’re going to pay a whole lot later. The U.S. has a unique opportunity to become energy independent, protect our national security and boost our economy while reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve been a model of success for the rest of the world in the past and now we must lead the way on climate change.”

Former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (July, 2008)

“We also know that over the next 20 years and more, certain pressures—population, resource, energy, climate, economic, and environmental—could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability…But, overall, looking ahead, I believe the most persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from ambitious states, than failing ones that cannot meet the basic needs—much less the aspirations—of their people.”

Former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Thomas Fingar (June, 2008)

“We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years … We judge that the most significant impact for the United States will be indirect and result from climate-driven effects on many other countries and their potential to seriously affect US national security interests.”

Former CIA Director, James Woolsey (June, 2008)

“The combination of 9/11, concern about climate change, and $4 a gallon gasoline has brought a lot of people together. I call it the coalition of the tree-huggers, the do-gooders, the cheap hawks, the evangelicals, and the mom and pop drivers. All of those groups have good reasons to be interested in moving away from oil dependence.”

Former Commander of the United States Army Materiel Command under President George W. Bush, General Paul Kern, USA (ret) (April, 2007)

“Military planning should view climate change as a threat to the balance of energy access, water supplies, and a healthy environment, and it should require a response.”

Former Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon Sullivan, USA (ret) (April, 2007)

“Climate change is a national security issue. We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world.”

Former NASA administrator Vice Admiral Richard Truly, USN (ret) (April, 2007)

“The stresses that climate change will put on our national security will be different than any we’ve dealt with in the past.”

Former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret) (April, 2007)

“You may also have a population that is traumatized by an event or a change in condi- tions triggered by climate change,” Gen. Zinni said. “If the government there is not able to cope with the effects, and if other institutions are unable to cope, then you can be faced with a collapsing state. And these end up as breed- ing grounds for instability, for insurgencies, for warlords. You start to see real extremism. These places act like Petri dishes for extremism and for terrorist networks.”

Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel (March, 2007)

According to Andrew Holland at the American Security Project: “Hagel was an original cosponsor of S.1018 in the 110th Congress, which required the Director of National intelligence to submit to Congress a National Intelligence Estimate on the anticipated geopolitical effects of global climate change and the implications of such effects on the national security. This legislation found that “The consequences of global climate change represent a clear and present danger to the security and economy of the United States.” The legislation was included as an amendment to the Committee-passed FY08 Intelligence Authorization, but was removed before passage on the Senate floor due to opposition in the Senate.”


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