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Defense Secretary Carter on the Strategic Implications of Climate Change


Photo by US DoD

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently spoke to a group at the Commonwealth Club in California. His remarks touched on issues related to climate risks, including state stability, the oceans, and the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific (for more on this see “The U.S. Asia-Pacific Rebalance, National Security and Climate Change). The question and answer session following Sec. Carter’s remarks included a question specifically on what the Department of Defense was doing on climate change (transcribed below). In his response, Sec. Carter makes it very clear that climate change is a strategic threat to the Department of Defense, and something the military is watching closely.


One point worth focusing on from Carter’s speech was his emphasis on how the Department of Defense looks at the security landscape writ large:

We don’t have the luxury of choosing among these challenges.  But we do have the ability to set a course for the future: a future that’s uncertain but will surely be competitive and demanding of America’s leadership, values, and military edge.

Full speech and Q&A are available here. The question on climate change begins with 5:26 minutes remaining.

GLORIA DUFFY ASKING AN AUDIENCE QUESTION: ISIS is not an existential threat to world order, to all life on the planet. Anthropogenic climate change is an existential threat to human civilization and the whole biosphere. It’s, in the view of this questioner, it’s the gravest security threat not only to the U.S., but to the whole planet. What are you doing to stop carbon emissions? [Audience cheers]

DEFENSE SECRETARY CARTER: It’s a good question. It’s a good question and it’s a serious concern. I think if the question is what is the Department of Defense doing per se, we are a carbon emitter but not a driver of that. We are doing things both in the name of efficiency, as well as carbon footprint like everybody else is. More efficient buildings, more efficient fuel engines, more efficient jet engines which also have a greater thrust weight and other things that are important to us from a military point of view. But climate change does have strategic implications for us. So another question in addition to the question asked is “What are you doing to adapt and how is that affecting us?” We don’t have a whole lot of effect on it, but it does have an effect on us. I mean, one thing it is doing is opening up the Arctic, which is already causing people to jockey and position. And I was talking about freedom of navigation and I mentioned the South China Sea, which happens to be a place everybody’s focused on today. But don’t forget that the reason to stick up for freedom of navigation is it’s everywhere. Straits of Hormuz, Arctic Ocean, Strait of Malacca, South China Sea, all of that is an important part of the human future. And we’re seeing change, climate change in the Arctic, and it’s having a strategic effect on us. It also has an effect on sea levels which, well, particularly for Pacific islanders and everything has a material effect on them. Patterns of climate affect human security because they cause people to move and famines to occur and things like that have security implications. What happens around the world does change the general environment for security so it does have implications for us very much. We watch all that very closely and try to make adaptations where we can.

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