Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (serving as Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama) recently sat down for an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation. Host John Dickerson asked Secretary Gates about his views on the national security implications of climate change. The interview is transcribed below, but in short, Secretary Gates noted that climate change does have serious consequences for national security. Gates also noted that ranking risks is not an appropriate way to look at the security landscape. We agree (see “Is Climate Change the Biggest Security Threat?” Is Still A Bad Question). The sooner we stop asking, “Is climate a national security issue?” and start asking, “How will climate change impact our national security priorities?” the better off we will be. Secretary Gates is spot on.
Face the Nation Interview between John Dickerson and Robert Gates
May 16, 2016 (video)
Dickerson: There’s been some debate in the presidential campaign about global warming and it’s affect on national security. What’s your view on that?
Sec. Gates: I think that it has, I think the long term consequences are serious. For example, as sea levels rise, the implications for political stability in a lot of countries where a lot of the population lives along the coast seems to me it’s going to be significant. Here, domestically, you know we’ve got some very big naval bases in Norfolk and elsewhere that are potentially, and in Florida, that potentially would be significantly impacted by a significant rise in the level of the oceans. If more and more countries begin to deal with more and more severe droughts, food shortages and famine could lead to political instability. So I think there are very real national security implications to what is happening to the climate. How you deal with that, of course, is a completely different question.
Dickerson: Where would you rank it in the you know…Candidates are asked “is this the most”…Bernie Sanders has said it’s the most important national security threat. Where does it rank? Is it even possible to rank it?
Sec. Gates: I think it is an important national security threat. I don’t think it is one of the top priorities. When I look at the world, when I look at the Middle East and chaos, when I look at a more assertive Russia and China, when I look at Iran and their aspirations in the region, and the potential for conflict in the Middle East continuing. The things that are happening in Brazil. There are a lot of very high priority issues that are on our doorstep today. But you know, John, part of the problem here is that everybody, everybody sees things in black and white terms. To say that it’s not the top national security priority, does that mean you just ignore it, or do you deal with it like other long term problems that we face? Whether it’s public health issues, viruses we haven’t seen yet, pandemics and so on. Or do you just say because it’s not top ranked we won’t pay any attention to it at all? This is what’s wrong in some ways with our politics. It’s either right or wrong. It’s either number one or doesn’t count at all. And that’s just ridiculous. That’s not the way the world works.
Dickerson: What is your level of concern that the system no longer can handle, whether it’s global warming, whether it’s the threat of radical Islam, whatever the threat is, what is your worry, based on all the experience you have, about the system’s ability to handle long term, complex problems?
Sec. Gates: My concern is that our government is so caught up in who’s going to take power, hold power, defend power, in fighting ideological fights, that we no longer think strategically about anything. I used to say all the time, only half in jest, that long range planning for Washington is a week from Thursday. Many of these issues we need to be thinking, for example, in the Middle East, how are we going to deal with a generation of conflict in that region? What do we want? What do we think is feasible at the end of that? And you know, one of the great things about some of the national security advisors that I worked for – Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Brzezinksi – they were long range thinkers. They were thinking about chapter two, chapter three, and, ‘How do I turn a short term crises into a long term strategic advantage?’ I don’t see anybody doing that.