OP-ED: Carbon pollution a threat to national security


"Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. ... Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

These are words from The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review which called climate change a "significant challenge for the United States and the world at large." The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) takes climate change very seriously as a risk to U.S. national security. Multiple documents such as the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Arctic Strategy have been produced by the DOD to lay out these risks and strategically prepare for them.

A prime example of climate change exacerbating water scarcity, aggravating social tensions and enabling terrorist activity is the Syrian civil war. For years, security and climate experts have made the connection of climate change to Syria's civil war. From 2006-11, 60 percent of Syria's land experienced "the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago," according to one expert.

In 2009, the UN and the International Federation of the Red Cross reported over 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods to the drought. The economic and human costs to Syrians were staggering. According to a 2010 New York Times story, "The four-year drought in Syria has pushed two million to three million people into extreme poverty. ... Herders in the country's northeast have lost 85 percent of their livestock, and at least 1.3 million people have been affected."

As farmers lost their crops and herders lost their livestock, they mass migrated from the rural areas to the cities. They were forced to compete for scarce job opportunities as well as more scarce water resources. Syria has also been coping with an influx of Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion in 2003, putting additional stress on the population. According to the Center for Climate and Security, adding to these factors: "This problem has been compounded by poor governance. The al-Assad regime has, by most accounts except their own, criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria's natural resources, which have contributed to water shortages and land desertification."

Several studies linked the drought in Syria with climate change, including a 2011 NOAA study that concluded "human-caused climate change (is now) a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts." A March 2015 National Academies of Sciences study, "Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought," found that global warming made Syria's 2006 to 2010 drought two to three times more likely.

Syria is not the only place the impacts of global warming can be seen. Global warming is driving climate change faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on earth. According to the Center for Climate and Security, "In the Arctic, dramatic changes to sea ice cover, driven in large part by climate change, may have a significant impact on resource disputes, particularly given a petroleum-rich sea bed and hazy territorial boundaries. The expected increase in commercial activities in the Arctic may also lead to security complications — as nations attempt to manage large stretches of open ocean that were previously inaccessible." For these reasons, the Department of Defense has the Arctic Strategy.

Congress would be wise to take climate change and its threat to our national security seriously. The military takes it seriously because, as one expert put it, "climate change is what risk analysts would call a 'high probability, high impact' risk, meaning that it is very likely to occur (between 90 percent and 97 percent), and will have a very large and widespread impact on security."

One thing is certain, the fossil fuels industry in the U.S. is allowed to extract massive amounts of fossil fuels and release the carbon pollution contained within at no cost to them. The planet (and society) will continue to shoulder the economic, ecological and human costs of carbon pollution. These costs will continue to grow and our security will continue to deteriorate as our civilization, which has risen during a time of climate stability, is forced to deal with an increasingly unstable climate. Adding these costs to the price of fossil fuels will send a signal to the market and spur investment in clean, carbon-free sources of energy and reduce the risks to our national security.

— Jon Clark is mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Dover.