On December 18, 2017, the Trump administration released the new National Security Strategy statement (Columbus Dispatch, 19 December 2017). This document, prepared by the Administration for Congress, outlines the major U.S. national security concerns and how the administration plans to deal with them.
In the new document the threat posed by global climate change to our national security has been removed from the list of threats, and is significantly downplayed.
You might ask, so what? What does climate have to do with global security? In fact, a lot. It turns out that the rapid climate changes we have observed in the past few decades have resulted in food insecurity in a variety of places; including the devastating Syrian drought of 2006-2010 which was one key factor driving political instability and war. (Colin Kelly and others provide a detailed analysis of the impact of the drought on political unrest in Syria in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; March 17, 2015.)
Climate disruptions in the middle-east and Africa have fueled the rapid rise of militant radical groups there. In addition the impact of climate change as an intensifier of natural disasters has created waves of refugees and immigrants worldwide.
This threat of climate-caused societal instability has long been recognized by pentagon planners. Previous national security statements have emphasized the importance of this factor. The new statement presents a striking departure from earlier assessments under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In a Time Magazine article (1 Dec 2015), Chuck Hagel (Secretary of Defense 2013-2015) stated “While I was Secretary of Defense, we prioritized preparing for climate change as a national security issue. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review warned that climate change was a ‘threat multiplier,’ identifying the specific risks to security we face from a changing climate.” Similarly, in 2016 James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence 2010-2017) pointed out that climate change and extreme weather events magnify global political instability.
I note that president Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act on 12 December which includes explicit language about the threat that climate change poses for national security. The apparent contradictions between the wording in the defense authorization act and the national security strategy statement released six days later are troubling. This timing highlights the inconsistency of the current administrations approach to the issue. For more about defense department reports consult (climateandsecurity.org).
By de-emphasizing or ignoring the threat of accelerating climate change and the resulting disruptions to agriculture and infrastructure, the current administration is exposing us to significant risk. When agricultural crops fail people go hungry. Hungry people are desperate and more susceptible to extremism. We need to be preparing for all possible security scenarios, including political instability abroad.
We would be wise to pay attention; I urge our national leaders to include climate disruption in their assessments. As a nation we must take strong and immediate action to reverse human-caused global climate change.
Richard A. Bradley is an associate professor, emeritus, The Ohio State University, and a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby, Delaware, Ohio Chapter.