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Leon Panetta on Climate Security in the DoD, CIA and the Pope’s Encyclical

Secretary of Defense the Honorable Leon Panetta addresses service members at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marc I. Lane/Released)

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addresses service members at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (photo by Staff Sgt. Marc I. Lane)

Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency,  sat down with America Magazine, the National Catholic Review, to discuss “Laudato Si” the recent climate encyclical from Pope Francis. Panetta, a life-long Catholic with decades worth of work in the security and intelligence sphere, provided some interesting insights into how the two threads intersect in his life, including how he incorporated climate risks into his work while at the Department of Defense and the CIA. This isn’t, however, the first time Panetta has spoken on the issue. See “Secretary of Defense Panetta Reaffirms Climate Change as a National Security Risk” for more (2012). Here is the full interview. Below are excerpts specifically related to climate security. 


From “The Long Slow Work of Change: Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on “Laudato Si” by Jim McDermott, July 6, 2015, American Magazine

Pope Francis also talks about how climate disaster and other disasters—like war or the poverty of nations—are connected. Does that fit for you?

Absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time working on ocean issues. I was chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, we issued a report on the concern about the state of our oceans. And the reality is, when the oceans are impacted, when the fisheries are impacted, when there’s a rise in sea levels, it’s the most vulnerable in our society that carry the most heavy cross—it’s the fisherman and their families, it’s those who live near the coast lines and the rising tides and the disasters that take place.

I think the pope, by focusing on that issue, makes it very clear that this isn’t just about those of us who have been successful and want to enjoy the mountains and the oceans because we love nature that way. This is about people whose very lives are dependent on nature, who have to be helped. And I think that point needs to be made, and it’s isn’t usually one of the arguments I’ve heard either in the Congress or elsewhere when it comes to protecting our environments.

Would you say in your work as the Director of the CIA or Secretary of Defense you’ve seen the importance of responding to climate change?

Both when I was at the CIA and at the Defense Department, I established offices to focus on the security impacts of climate change. At the CIA I thought it was critical to look at where are droughts occurring, where are water problems occurring, where are the coastlines being impacted by sea levels rising or by the increase in the temperature of our oceans. Just one example—as the ice sheets and the polar areas were receding, the whole issue of the effort to go after the resources there and the competition for those resources, all of this raises security issues that we have to be aware of. So there is in a very real sense a relationship between what’s happening to our climate and what’s happening to the security of our planet.

Would you say there are certain parts of the world where the security concerns coming out of climate change would be greater?

Sure, if you look at the Asia region, what we saw happen in areas around Indonesia, the impact of the typhoons and the damage that was done. We are now seeing on a somewhat regular basis natural disasters of one kind or another that really are demanding that the countries of that region really pay attention to how we protect against these kinds of disasters.

It was interesting to go to China and find that the Chinese, who generally have gone out and fished the oceans of the world in a pretty aggressive way, as a result of the fisheries diminishing, are now asking themselves what do we do to try and protect these fisheries for the future. They’re beginning to talk about sustainable fisheries. So it’s unfortunate it has to happen this way, but it’s the old story, to get the attention of the jackass you often have to hit him across the head. Too often these disasters have to happen to get people to pay attention to what’s taking place.

Full interview available here.

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