In a September 5th interview with Andrea Mitchell, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke about the importance of addressing the security threat of climate change, much as he did while he was Secretary of Defense from 2017-2019. In particular, he addressed skeptical audiences, stating: “why wouldn’t we take out an insurance policy and do prudent steps to make certain the generation that’s coming up is not going to be caught flat-footed by this?” Here’s the clip:
Secretary Mattis was the first in at least 32 senior defense officials to recommend action on climate change during this Administration.
Transcript of the exchange:
Mitchell: “Climate change. When you went into government, to this office, you made a clear point about climate change. That the danger, the national security threat to our bases, to our troops. Now recently, since you’ve left, the Navy has rolled back an Obama-era climate commission – a task force on climate for the military. How do you feel about that?
Mattis: “Yeah, I’ve not read the details of what was happening and what was rolled back, so I don’t want to comment on something I’m not privy to. However, I will say that climate change, I believe, is a reality. We are dealing with open waters where it used to be ice fields, that we have to deal with. And I think that, let me just talk for a moment to those who are skeptical climate change. Wouldn’t you, even if you’re a skeptical of it, wouldn’t you want to take out an insurance policy just in case it was right? I mean, I’m not going to talk to people who believe in climate change right now, but for those who are adamant there’s no climate change, you look at the receding sea ice and have different explanations, why wouldn’t we take out an insurance policy and do prudent steps to make certain the generation that’s coming up is not going to be caught flat-footed by this? It’s a national security issue because when people have to leave devastated areas, and move elsewhere, the refugee flows, all the humanitarian effort that goes into it, the willingness of some people to take advantage of those people, terrorists in particular, and recruit from them because they feel a loss of hope, it’s a reality we’re going to have to deal with.”
Clarification: In the clip, Andrea Mitchell noted that the U.S. Navy “has rolled back an Obama-era climate commission – a task force on climate for the military.” While it is true that the US Navy Task Force Climate Change (USNTFCC) was quietly disbanded earlier this year (a move that was criticized by its former head, retired Rear Admiral Jonathan White), it’s worth clarifying that the task force was not quite an Obama-era effort. In fact, the task force was called for by former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Roughhead, back in 2008, and began to be set up by Rear Admiral Dave Titley that same year, before the Obama Administration entered office in 2009. For more on the closure of the USNTFCC, click here.
UPDATE (9/8/2019): Secretary Mattis continued to raise concerns about climate change during a discussion at George Washington University on September 6. Here are excerpts from an Air Force Magazine article published yesterday:
“Let me talk for a moment to those who are skeptical about climate change,” Mattis, who left the Defense Department in December, told an audience during a memoir tour talk at George Washington University. “Even if it might not be the case, if there is a chance that it’s climate change and it can be as potentially catastrophic as some think it could be, wouldn’t it be good to have an insurance policy?”
Mattis said a plan introduced by the Climate Leadership Council—which would levy a fee on entities whose mines, wells, or ports emit carbon dioxide and return those proceeds to individual Americans—makes sense.
He laid out examples of climate effects the military needs to consider. For one, melting sea ice has created “a new open body of water that, from a military point of view, we have to deal with,” he said.
“To me, this is just science,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the politics of it.”
Mattis, who has long pointed to climate threats, also used the role of drought as a driver of unrest in the Middle East to illustrate how Earth’s changing climate has affected national security—namely, in terms of economic challenges that can drive the flow of refugees across international borders.
He argued the Syrian civil war could be linked to drought that drove hard-pressed farmers into the cities. Climate’s role in the Syrian conflict has been debated for years.
“Rents went up, not enough seats in the classroom, people were angry, a fruit seller sets himself on fire in Tunis, and the anger just comes through the Arab world,” he said. “You can draw at least some conclusions that this has indirectly fed into much of the discontent.”
Mattis encouraged the audience to focus on “defining the problem in a way that is irrefutable” enough to sway 80 percent of people.
“I think we live in such a skeptical age today that that’s probably a magnificent number if you can reach it, but then we’ve got to do something about it,” he said.