GOP Senator Attacks Retired Military Brass for Saying Climate Change Threatens Security

16 generals and admirals warn that “we no longer have the option to wait” and plead for a “bipartisan call to action.”

Photo Credit: Center for Strategic & International Studies

Republican Sen. James Inhofe is once again dismissing a report on climate change, attacking the integrity of the report's authors. While that's not news in itself, the targets of Inhofe's derision are 16 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals. Inhofe claims that retired military officers are just desperate for publicity, and don't understand the defense needs of the nation.

The generals and admirals wrote a federally funded report on climate change, assessing the threats of global weather events on national security. 

Other Republicans, however, have been notably quiet since the report's release. Typically, they form a chorus to shout down any climate-change report, claiming that man-made climate change is fraud perpetuated by the "liberal agenda.” This time, the authors of the report are not scientists and environmentalists, the typical targets of conservative derision. It would be political suicide for any Republican to categorize such a large group of career military officers as liberals, especially in an election year.

The authors of the climate change report focused solely on their area of expertise, national security. They serve as the military advisory board for the CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization in Alexandria, VA. They warned that climate change is not only a menace to the environment but presents the U.S. with several new security threats. The advisory board's report said that climate change has already led to conflicts over food and water because of droughts and extreme weather, and it anticipates that the incidence of these conflicts will increase exponentially. The report also predicted that the increase in catastrophic weather events would create more demand for U.S. military troops, and could cause damage to naval ports and military bases.

“Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States,” says the report, adding that conflicts will likely be felt “even in stable regions.”

The report says that climate events like flooding, prolonged drought and rising sea levels could result in population dislocation, waves of refugees and food insecurity. These would serve as “catalysts for instability and conflict,” in more vulnerable regions, aggravating existing stressors such as poverty, political instability and social tensions. Such conditions can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence, according to the report. 

The report concluded that the U.S. military should shift course, and adopt strategies to manage catastrophes and conflicts both domestically and internationally.

The report's forward was written by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. They warned that “we no longer have the option to wait and see” and pleaded for a “bipartisan call to action.”

Responding to the report, Secretary of State John Kerry told the New York Times that American foreign policy will need to adjust to respond to the climate events predicted. Kerry said, “The intelligence community takes it seriously, and it's translated into action.”

“Tribes are killing each other over water today. Think of what happens if you have massive dislocation, or the drying up of the waters of the Nile, of the major rivers in China and India,” Kerry said.

Pentagon officials also said they would use the report's findings to shape military policy; however, it is already moving in that direction. Last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosted 10 defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a meeting in Hawaii where they discussed how their militaries can work together to effectively tackle non-traditional security challenges, including climate change and natural disasters. And in March, the Department of Defense announced it had drawn a direct link between the effects of global warming and terrorism.

“The department certainly agrees that climate change is having an impact on national security, whether by increasing global instability, by opening the Arctic or by increasing sea level and storm surge near our coastal installations,” said John Conger, the deputy under secretary of defense for installations and environment. “We are actively integrating climate considerations across the full spectrum of our activities to ensure a ready and resilient force.”

One of the report's authors, retired Rear Admiral David Titley, the former oceanographer of the Navy, told the Huffington Post he hopes the message will be received differently by climate-change deniers as it comes from retired and respected U.S. military brass.

“This report is signed, not by environmentalists or climate scientists, but by 16 admirals and generals who collectively have over 500 years of service to our country,” said Titley, who is now a meteorology professor at Penn State University.

There is some speculation that the report could spawn a National Intelligence Estimate regarding climate change. NIEs are authored by the U.S.' 16 intelligence organizations and various military organizations and are used to evaluate security threats here and abroad, typically suggesting actions to be taken.

In 2007, then Sen. Hagel, a Republican, called for legislation requiring federal intelligence agencies to collaborate on a National Intelligence Estimate to evaluate the security challenges presented by climate change. He was joined by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. Although Hagel and Durbin's bill died in committee, a NIE was later released in 2008. No NIE on climate change has been released since. 

Any mention of climate change by scientists, the media and the Obama administration is met with piranha-like attacks by Republicans that often climax in an abundance of media appearances to denounce the messengers. But with the exception of Inhofe, they've been notably hesitant to attack former top military officers.

Inhofe, of Oklahoma, is a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He calls himself "a vocal skeptic of the established science that greenhouse-gas emissions contribute to global warming." He claims to believe the science of climate change is a "hoax."

"There is no one in more pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer," said Inhofe of the CNA Corporation study. "I look back wistfully at the days of the Cold War. Now you have people who are mentally imbalanced, with the ability to deploy a nuclear weapon. For anyone to say that any type of global warming is anywhere close to the threat that we have with crazy people running around with nuclear weapons, it shows how desperate they are to get the public to buy this."

Climate change, which was once considered an issue that would only pose problems many years from now, has moved firmly into the present. Although scientists caution against linking any single atypical climate event to climate change, they note that together these aberrant and severe weather events are consistent with global warming.

In March, the United Nations released a report stating that climate change is already cutting into the global food supply and fueling wars and natural disasters. The report stated that political instability and riots in Asia and Africa in 2008 were a direct result of food-price shocks brought on by regional weather events. The UN report warned that governments are unprepared to protect those most at risk.

Syria's civil war is believed to have been spurred by the droughts which have distressed the country since 2006. Three-quarters of the nation's crops have failed and nearly all of its livestock have died of thirst or hunger. Syria’s farmers abandoned their farms, fleeing to the cities in search of jobs and critically insufficient food supplies, creating regional social unrest. UN observers estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty, and this is the core cause of recent national instability.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.