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Obama casts climate change as urgent national security challenge

Speaking at a Coast Guard graduation ceremony, the president says climate change poses a massive problem for military

President Barack Obama on Wednesday pressed for concerted action to mitigate the effects of climate change, describing it as a national security issue with urgent and long-term consequences.

“I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country,” he said during the Coast Guard Academy’s graduation ceremony.

Speaking to cadets, who he said were already battling climate change, Obama said, “This is not just a problem for countries on the coast or for certain regions of the world. Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune.”

On Monday the White House released a summary (PDF) of climate change risks linked to national security concerns. The evaluations paint a stark picture of the anticipated effects of climate change from a national security perspective. As the president reiterated on Wednesday, they include higher U.S. military operational costs, worsening global and domestic security challenges, including more resources to combat rising seas.

Regarding the speech, retired Rear Adm. David Titley — an advisory board member at the Center for Climate and Security, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that addresses the security issues that stem from climate change — said, “The rhetoric is all good. What we are waiting to see is if this administration will commit real resources in the budgets of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to enable those departments to take actions commensurate with the challenges the president describes so eloquently.”

The Pentagon has called climate change “a threat multiplier,” making conflicts more difficult to confront.

Obama said Wednesday that this threat multiplier is not just about the future. The burdens of climate change, he said, are already felt by the U.S. national security apparatus.

He said that in Nigeria and Syria the effects of climate change have given radical groups space to capitalize on existing instability.

In Syria climate change played a role in a drought that preceded and, according to many analysts, played a role in the ensuing Syrian civil war, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives and uprooted millions of people, according to a study published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The president also highlighted the impact of 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Experts believe the damage it caused was more severe because of a century of rising seas.

“The federal response to Hurricane Sandy illustrated the breadth and depth of response necessary from U.S. security personnel in the wake of extreme events,” Monday’s White House document reads.

Obama on Wednesday referred to the possibility of increasing numbers of climate refugees, people displaced because of rising oceans and changing weather patterns. In March several global organization called for nations involved with the ongoing international climate talks to take strong measures “in close consultation with communities at risk of displacement to prevent and mitigate forced internal and cross-border displacement in the context of climate change.”

He has made climate change a more pressing policy goal in his second term but has found little interest from a Republican-controlled Congress. Many legislators are skeptical of policy efforts to deal with the effects of climate change or deny the broad scientific consensus that it is being caused by human activity.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., on Wednesday slammed Obama’s decision to focus on the global dangers of climate change instead of the concerns posed by groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. “I think many Americans would be astonished to learn that the president’s planned discussion on national security is going to center on climate change,” he said ahead of the speech.

In response to congressional opposition, Obama’s efforts have largely centered on executive actions or nonbinding international agreements. The administration previously announced a blueprint that would clamp down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, using the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory power (though that is being challenged in court by energy groups). 

Also, in November the U.S. and China announced a bilateral plan to reduce their CO2 emissions.

It’s unclear weather casting climate change as a national security issue will lead to a bipartisan effort to tackle the problem. For now, though, the military appears to be taking the issue seriously on its own.

“The concern over the security implications of climate change over the past decade or so has come from the ground up — especially U.S. military forces in places experiencing climate stress, such as U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command. In this context, it is quite apolitical,” said Caitlin Werrell, the director of the Center for Climate and Security.

She added that the U.S. military was very “aware of the broad risk landscape that they operate in, and climate change is increasingly seen as presenting a strategically significant risk to both national and international security.”

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