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Pres. Obama On How Climate Risks Compare To Other National Security Priorities

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the concluding session of the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) in Anchorage, Alaska, on August 31, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Pres. Obama delivers remarks at the GLACIER conference in Alaska. State Department photo

During President Obama’s recent visit to Alaska, Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell sat down with him to talk climate. One of Goodell’s questions to President Obama was on how climate change compared to other national security risks. Both the question and President Obama’s response are worth reading and are copied below. Goodell also noted the significance of National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s participation in the Alaska trip:

Rice’s presence was a reminder that a rapidly melting Arctic also has rapidly escalating national-security implications. As the ice vanishes, a whole new ocean is opening up — and one that contains 30 percent of the known natural-gas reserves and 13 percent of the oil. Unlike Russia, the U.S. is poorly equipped to operate up there, with only two icebreakers (the Russians have 40). And the Russians aren’t the only ones with eyes on the Arctic — as we were flying toward Kotzebue, five Chinese warships were cruising in international waters below. Coincidence or power play? And off to the east, the Canadian military had just wrapped up Operation Nanook, an annual large-scale military exercise, which, according to the Canadian government, was “to assert sovereignty over its northernmost regions.”

The full interview is available here.


Goodell: You’ve talked increasingly about climate change as a national-security issue. How would you compare the challenges and the risk to America’s security regarding climate change to, say, ISIS or, for that matter, Iran?

Obama: Well, they’re different. And as president and commander in chief, I don’t have the luxury of selecting one issue versus the other. They’re all major problems. What we know about climate change, though, is that with increasing drought, increasing floods, increasing erosion of coastlines, that’s going to impact agriculture; it’s going to increase scarcity in parts of the world; it is going to result in displacement of large numbers of people.

The people who live on the island [Kivalina] that we flew over today can move. It’s painful for those residents, but it can be done. If the monsoon patterns in South Asia change, you can’t move tens of millions of people without the possibilities of refugees, conflict. And the messier the world gets, the more national-security problems we have. In fact, there have been arguments that, for example, what’s happening in Syria partly resulted from record drought that led huge numbers of folks off farms and the fields into the cities in Syria, and created a political climate that led to protests that Assad then responded to in the most vicious ways possible.

But that’s the kind of national-security challenge that we’re looking at with climate change. It will manifest itself in different ways, but what we know from human history is that when large populations are put under severe strain, then they react badly. And that can be expressed in terms of nationalism; it can be expressed in terms of war; it can be expressed in terms of xenophobia and nativism; it can be expressed in terms of terrorism. But the whole package is one that we should be wanting to avoid, if at all possible.


1 Comment

  1. Bill DeMott says:

    I think that Obama is largely correct, but he left out an important point. Climate change is going to keep getting worse over hundreds and thousands of years if we don’t take strong action soon. Hard to imagine that ISIS will still be a big threat in 100 years. Remember that Hitler and the Third Reich was a serious concern 75 years ago. The Thousand year Reich is long gone. Climate change will not be defeated so easily as a human opponent.

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