Truman National Security Project

Climate Change Our Most Serious Security Threat

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Ask Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of the U.S. military’s sprawling Pacific Command, what his most serious threat is, and you might be surprised. There’s a long list of possibilities, after all: North Korean nukes, rising Chinese military power and aggressive cyberespionage, multiple territorial disputes between major powers and persistent insurgencies from the Philippines to Thailand, not to mention protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable shipping choke points. Add all of that up, though, and there’s something even more dangerous to keep even the most seasoned military officer up at night: the looming disaster of climate change.

Locklear is not alone in his assessment. He is one among a rising chorus of voices from the national security community, from senior military and intelligence officials to front-line combat veterans, united by what is fast becoming a consensus view. Climate change is much more than an environmental or public health issue. The phenomenon, and the dangerous fossil fuel dependency that drives it, is among the most serious national security threats we face.

Our dependence on fossil fuels – oil, in particular – is a crucial part of the threat. A new generation of combat veterans has seen the consequences firsthand on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As a young lieutenant on my first combat tour, in Iraq, I served on an isolated fighting camp south of Baghdad in an area known as the Triangle of Death. My unit was entirely dependent on a daily fuel convoys to run the generators that powered our operations. Recognizing this, Iraqi insurgents consistently ambushed the convoys while my infantry company fought to protect them – leading to almost-daily firefights we came to call “fighting for our supper.”

My experience was hardly unique. One in 24 fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan ended in an American casualty, with more than 3,000 Americans killed in fuel-supply convoys between 2003 and 2007 alone. Our enemies recognize a crucial weakness that our military leaders understand all too well, our dependence on oil for more than 95 percent of our transportation.

That vulnerability is felt at the strategic level as well as on the front lines. Often pumped from nondemocratic regimes, oil flows through extremely vulnerable chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz. In return, the cash makes its way into the hands of countries such as Iran, and even to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Small wonder that several secretaries of defense, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force have all publicly acknowledged that America’s dependence on oil is a serious threat to our national security.

Meanwhile, these leaders acknowledge that the effects of climate change are already being felt in the field. Those effects – including increasingly severe weather, drought, flooding and famine – add up to why the Pentagon‘s key strategic document calls climate change “an accelerant of instability and conflict” that produces “prominent military vulnerabilities” for the nation. These dynamics are already in play.

Terrorist recruiters prey upon desperate populations in the wake of severe weather, as the Taliban did in 2010 when it recruited an estimated 50,000 new fighters after severe flooding struck Pakistan. In Bangladesh, a projected one-meter rise in sea level would flood almost one-fifth of the entire country. The mass refugee crisis that will ensue is not hard to predict. Neither is the refugees’ likely destination – which is partially why neighboring India is building an 8-meter-high, double-walled fence, topped with razor wire, running the length of the border.

As the president’s former national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said in a recent speech, climate change is “not just a transcendent challenge for the world, but a present-day national security threat to the United States.”

The military is quietly taking decisive action, at every level. The Navy is investing in new ways to power ships and combat aircraft, such as developing advanced biofuels made from algae and Camelina, a seed that grows in 49 states. The Air Force is deploying an enormous fleet of electric vehicles on bases. And the Army and Marines are using solar panels and recharging blankets on the battlefield in Afghanistan, giving troops the capability to power critical equipment while reducing the number of dangerous fuel convoys. These investments are not about image or ideology – they’re about improving performance, protecting the force and accomplishing the mission.

Meanwhile, this generation of veterans is not waiting either. Operation Free, a national coalition of thousands of veterans, national security leaders and military family members in all 50 states, is tackling climate change. Today, Operation Free is leading the fight for clean energy policies at the federal and state level, from Ohio to Arizona. Here in California, Operation Free co-sponsored and helped pass the Energy Security Coordination Act of 2012, which directs California energy planners to harness the benefits of military-led clean energy innovation.

The U.S. military does not do politics – it identifies threats based on evidence and acts to protect the nation. Congress should follow its example.

The evidence for climate change is overwhelming. It’s time for Washington to face that reality and find the courage to lead.

Michael Breen is the Executive Director of the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.