Commentary: Climate change poses national security threat too

Everett’s Sen. Henry M. Jackson fought for defense and the environment. His words apply more than ever.

By Craig Gannett and Peter Jackson / For The Herald

Recently the henry M. Jackson Foundation, in partnership with the Center for Climate & Security and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, launched an important new report that evaluates how future climate change scenarios could affect global and U.S. security interests in the 21st century.

The report, produced by a group of high-level U.S. national security, military and intelligence leaders in concert with the foundation, details the risks posed to the U.S. military’s six geographic combatant commands from climate change. Its findings indicate that projected near-term and long-term climate change trajectories pose severe threats to global security. The higher-end warming scenarios would bring about catastrophic and irreversible risks to human and security systems.

Climate change is more than an environmental crisis; it threatens our national security. As droughts, flooding and forest fires become more widespread, governments around the world are struggling to meet the mounting needs of their citizens. As sea levels continue to rise, as farmland and fisheries become less productive, and as drought diminishes water resources, we are seeing only the beginning of vast, worldwide migrations. These shocks are already fueling incendiary rhetoric, political strife and distrust of governmental institutions, all of which undermine the global cooperation necessary to fashion and implement durable solutions.

In a milestone report released on Feb. 24, the Center for Climate & Security describes in graphic terms the impacts that climate change will have on our security in the coming decades. “A Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change” is both a stern warning and a call to action by a distinguished panel of retired generals and admirals, intelligence professionals and security experts.

The impacts of climate change on U.S. national security are both direct and indirect. The direct impacts are already being felt. Rising seas and extreme weather are degrading our critical military infrastructure around the world, including ports, airfields and training facilities. Making matters worse, our bases depend on the surrounding civilian infrastructure for electricity, water and the public roads and transit that carries service personnel and civilian employees to the bases each day. All of that critical infrastructure is vulnerable to climate change. And most importantly, as climate change sparks humanitarian crises and conflict abroad, our men and women in uniform will more often be put in harm’s way.

The indirect impacts are equally insidious. U.S. security is affected by the financial and political health of the rest of the world. If, for example, dozens of low-lying coastal mega cities and industrial centers abroad are forced to uproot due to rising sea levels, we will not be immune from the huge drag on the global economy. And if the resulting political unrest undermines America’s democratic allies and emboldens our authoritarian foes, we will be increasingly isolated in an increasingly unfriendly world.

Before global warming was widely recognized as a problem, Congressional leaders of both parties recognized the essential connection between a healthy environment and a healthy, secure society. Among them, U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson, D-Washington, saw no inconsistency between his hardheaded views on matters of national defense and his staunch support for protecting the environment. A co-author of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, he noted that “in our management of the environment we have exceeded its adaptive and recuperative powers and in one form or another must now pay directly the costs.” In urging prompt action, he warned that “Today it is clear that we cannot continue to perpetuate the mistakes of the past. We no longer have the margins for error and mistake that we once enjoyed.”

On that note, the Center for Climate & Security’s report carefully examines the likely effect of two scenarios on the six regions that the Pentagon uses for organizing its worldwide command structure. Under the near-term scenario, the average worldwide temperature increases by 1.8 to 3.6 degrees F above the pre-industrial global average, reaching the high-end of that range as soon as mid-century. Under the long-term scenario — assuming that no significant emission reductions occur in the meantime — temperatures increase beyond 3.6 degrees F, reaching as high as 7.2 degrees F by the end of this century. The scenarios differ significantly in terms of impacts, but — spoiler alert — it’s all bad. Not surprisingly, the most economically and politically fragile regions will suffer the most, and the higher temperature scenario will make things much worse in all regions.

The simple math of climate science dictates that we achieve net zero, and any further denial and delay will only make the lives of our children and grandchildren even less secure. As Sen. Jackson put it, “The survival of man, in a world in which decency and dignity are possible, is the basic reason for bringing man’s impact on his environment under informed and responsible control.” A half-century later, our failure to achieve informed and responsible control is jeopardizing our national security. We still have time to limit the harm, but our margin for error and mistake is shrinking fast.

This commentary was originally published by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. Craig Gannett is president of the Jackson Foundation’s board of directors. Peter Jackson is a board member and former opinion page editor for The Herald.

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