4 Reasons Climate Change Affects National Security

On Wednesday, the White House released a new report, "The National Security Implications of Changing Climate."

In concert with the release, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, during which he argued that climate change ranks alongside terrorism as a primary threat to America's future and criticized climate deniers in Congress for putting the security of Americans at risk.

"I know there are still some folks back in Washington who refuse to admit that climate change is real," the president told graduating cadets. "Denying it, or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces."

Here are Obama's four main arguments connecting climate change to national security in the new report:

1. Climate change puts coastal areas at risk

Citing the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, the effects of which were worsened by the fact that the sea level at New York Harbor had risen by a foot since 1900, the report called the nation's coastal areas "the frontlines of the threat posed by climate change."

"Critical infrastructure, major military installations, and hurricane evacuation routes are increasingly vulnerable to impacts, such as higher sea levels, storm surges, and flooding exacerbated by climate change. Sea level rise, coupled with storm surge, will continue to increase the risk of major coastal impacts on transportation infrastructure, including both temporary and permanent flooding of airports, ports and harbors, roads, rail lines, tunnels, and bridges."

2. The changing Arctic poses risks to other parts of the country

Expanding on the president's National Strategy for the Arctic Region document from May 2013, the report says the Arctic region offers a "vivid case study" that reveals how climate change and national security are intertwined.

"Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the world on average, and melting glaciers and land-based ice sheets are contributing to rising sea levels," the report states. "Rising ocean temperatures are causing northward range shifts of certain fish species, affecting ocean ecosystems and the communities and economies that depend on them. The changing Arctic could lead to global changes in ocean-based food security that will place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world."

The report also points out that an increase in Arctic shipping routes caused by the melting ice requires the U.S. to "be more prepared to respond to emergencies in this remote region."

3. Climate change poses risks to infrastructure

Citing the Department of Homeland Security's Quadrennial Homeland Security Review conclusion that "climate change may overwhelm the capacities of critical infrastructure, causing widespread disruption of essential services across the country," the report notes three specific effects of climate change that have national security implications.

Firstly, extreme weather events are already affecting the production and distribution of energy, causing disruptions in electricity supply. Secondly, an increase in summer temperatures and decrease in winter temperatures means an increase in net electricity use. And thirdly, sea level rise, extreme storm surges, higher tides and climate-related changes in water availability threaten coastal infrastructure that depends on energy systems.

4. Climate change puts increased demands on military resources

The report argues that climate change will affect the various missions of the Department of Defense, including overseas disaster and humanitarian relief, Arctic response and instability within and between foreign nations.

"Climate change will directly impact U.S. military readiness," the report states, citing changes in the availability of quality land and reductions in water supply as factors that influence military operations, installations and supplies. In addition, climate change "will also impact the design of current and future weapons systems to account for extreme weather."

The report provides several examples. Unusual rains and flooding caused $64 million in damages to 160 facilities at an Army installation in the Southwest. Several Air Force early warning and communication installations are impacted by the melting ice and a rising sea level. And record-breaking rainfall and flash flooding overwhelmed the Department of Energy's Pantex plant, which is responsible for assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons.

Obama: "We need to act now"

The president has made this argument before. "No challenge," he said in his State of the Union Address in January, "poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," adding, "The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

In February, the theme was again on the forefront of the administration as the White House released a national security strategy document that characterized climate change as "an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water."

But his remarks on Wednesday were his most vigorous yet on the theme connecting climate change to national security. He told the cadets that the "urgent need to combat and adapt to climate change" is the challenge that "perhaps more than any other, will shape your entire careers."

"I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security," the president told the Coast Guard cadets. "And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act — and we need to act now."


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