04.08.14

Climate Change and National Security

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thank you very much.  I’m now here for the sixty-fourth time to ask my colleagues to wake up to the threat of climate change.  It was actually, Madam President, almost exactly two years ago—April of 2012—that I began speaking here every week on the Floor that the Senate is in session. 

I have tried to make a compelling case for my colleagues.  First and foremost, I have relied on the overwhelming scientific evidence and the near unanimity of the scientific community. 

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere due to human activities is driving unprecedented changes.  And, of course, they are changes that Americans see all about them in their lives now.  Now, if ninety-seven doctors told you that you needed surgery, who among us, in our right minds, would heed the advice of the three doctors who said they were unsure that we could delay the treatment?

I’ve talked about global warming.  I’ve talked about the “weirding” of the weather:  heat waves, extreme downpours, droughts, shifting seasons. 

I’ve talked at length about the devastating toll taken on our oceans, which holds such peril for my home state, Rhode Island, the Ocean State.  Our oceans are warming, they are rising, and they are becoming more acidic, and all of that is undeniable, it is measurable.  It threatens our coastal communities and marine species alike.

I have described the potential for deep economic disruption, in industries like fishing and farming, or from inundation or wildfire.  And I’ve looked at the threat to human health.

I’ve conveyed the deep concerns of corporate leaders, who understand that climate change is bad for business.  And of faith leaders, who appeal to our moral duty to conserve God’s creation and to spare those most vulnerable to catastrophe.

I have answered the claims of those in this chamber who deny the reality of climate change and the need for action.  And I have called out the network of fossil-fuel propaganda that seeks to mire this Congress in phony, manufactured doubt.

I’ve even been joined by colleagues who share my commitment to rousing this Congress from its oil- and coal- induced slumber, including the historic all-night stand here on the Floor that reached hundreds of thousands of Americans.

But unfortunately, Madam President, it seems we still have some ways to go.  I could stand here till I am blue in the face supplying this chamber with reasoned arguments and scientific facts on climate change, and some here in Congress would ignore it.  Because they reject information from scientists and they ignore empirical evidence. 

So, maybe it’s time to bring in some muscle:  the American military. 

Climate change threatens our strategic interests, our military readiness, and our domestic security in many ways.  It is a serious national security issue.  Don’t take my word for it, our top military commanders and strategic planners at the Department of Defense say so.  

Four years ago, the Department of Defense released the Quadrennial Defense Review, clearly linking for the first time climate change and national security. 

The 2010 Review concluded that the effects of climate change could contribute to increases in regional instability driven by demand for food, water, and natural resources, and to extreme weather events, which will increase the need for humanitarian aid and disaster relief both within the U.S. and abroad.  

Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen put it this way.  I’ll quote him: “The scarcity of and potential competition for resources like water, food, and space, compounded by the influx of refugees if coastal lands are lost, does not only create a humanitarian crisis, but it creates conditions of hopelessness that could lead to failed states and make populations vulnerable to radicalization.”  That’s the United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Last year, nine retired generals and admirals joined seventeen former members of the House and Senate and several former cabinet-level officials, and issued this warning:  “The potential consequences to climate change are undeniable,” they said.  “And the cost of inaction, paid for in lives and valuable U.S. resources will be staggering.”

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review was released last month in tandem with the Department of Defense’s budget request.  And it is just as straightforward in its warnings on climate change.  I’ll quote:  “Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. . . . 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.”

The second installment of the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report, released just last week, echoes what our own military leaders are already telling us.  According to the report, “climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

In response to our changing climate, the Department of Defense is conducting a comprehensive assessment of the risks to U.S. military installations.  This is not a trivial effort, and it is not being undertaken without cause.  The Pentagon is also working with other nations to strengthen the network of humanitarian assistance for disaster response.        

The reach of our military stretches to every corner of the globe—and so do the effects of climate change.  Our commanders recognize the need to adapt in every theater. 

Much has been made of the U.S. military and diplomatic “pivot” to the Pacific region.  Well, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, has called climate change the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific, because it, and I quote him here, “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”  The head of our Pacific Command is describing this as the most likely thing to happen to cripple the security environment.

And the threat extends from pole to pole.  Former Supreme Allied Commander and Commander of U.S. forces in Europe James Stavridis is wary of the ongoing reduction in Arctic sea ice.  I quote him: “This will present potential problems,” he states, “from oil spills, dangers to wildlife, search and rescue for commercial shipping and tourist boats, and open zones of maneuver for the navies of the Arctic nations to interact.”

Madam President, our American military leaders are clear in sounding this alarm.  

Here in Congress, some of us are taking this warnings seriously.  The Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which I lead with Congressman Waxman, invited national security experts to share their perspective on climate change.  

Retired Marine Corps Brigadier General Stephen Cheney is CEO of the American Security Project, founded in 2005 by former Senators John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Gary Hart, and Warren Rudman.    He stressed that climate change is not a new issue within national security circles and that the U.S. must engage the world on this issue.  Which of course we cannot do while we’re paralyzed by false denial.

Retired Army Brigadier General Gerald Galloway spoke of the risk extreme weather events pose to military installations.  He said, “When communities and installations are unaware of their vulnerability to these events, the results can be disastrous.  A failure to be prepared shifts the military’s focus from maintaining a constant level of readiness to dealing with each of these climate change impacts as they occur.  Both floods and increased temperatures can bring training to a halt or restrict critical movements.”

This message was echoed by retired Army Captain Jon Gensler, who described the difficulty of maintaining our readiness, particularly in responding to ever-increased requests for disaster-related humanitarian assistance.

The consensus is clear from the people to whom we have entrusted our national security:  climate change is a serious threat to national security and to global security, for which we need to plan and prepare.

That’s the message Secretary of State John Kerry brought to an audience in Jakarta, Indonesia, earlier this year.  “In a sense,” he said, “climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction. . . . The fact” he continued, “is that climate change, if left unchecked, will wipe out many more communities from the face of the earth.  And that is unacceptable under any circumstances—but is even more unacceptable because we know what we can do and need to do in order to deal with this challenge.”  End quote.

And yet, Congress sleepwalks, refusing to listen, refusing to speak of it, refusing to act when duty calls us to act.  When history calls us to act.  When decency calls us to act.

Madam President, I have in my office a book written by Geoffrey Regan, it is titled “Great Naval Blunders:  History’s Worst Sea Battle Decisions from Ancient Times to the Present Day.”  It’s an interesting book to read.  It’s a long history of episodes of folly and error that have ended in disaster.   It contains the account of a fleet of British naval ships docked at a harbor as a great typhoon bore down on them.  The ships’ captains knew that the typhoon was so strong that it would tear the ships loose from their anchors and wreck them.  They knew that their only safe strategy was to up anchor, head out of the harbor, and try to weather the storm at sea.  But none of the captains wanted to be the first ship to leave the port.  So they all stayed.  And the typhoon swept down and they were destroyed.

Regan calls this, I’ll quote him, “an error of judgment that will forever remain a paradox in human psychology”.  We can make those kinds of errors of judgment, and for those captains and their crews, the error was fatal.  Facing certain destruction, those sea captains refused to take the action that they knew was necessary to save their ships, to save themselves, to save their crews.  I think of that story as we stand here in the Senate, unable to respond to what is looming down on us from climate change.  The science couldn’t be clearer.  It is grownup time around here and we need to take it seriously.  And the fact that one side of the aisle can’t even use the words “climate change” is a terrible sign.

John Wayne, a great American actor who we all know, had a number of wonderful roles in his life.  One of John Wayne’s roles was to play Sergeant Stryker in the movie “Sands of Iwo Jima”.  Sergeant Stryker in that movie had a memorable phrase: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.”  Well, we have all the information in front of us that we need to avoid being stupid.  Collectively, that is what we are being.  Like those captains, knowing of what is bearing down on us, we somehow are unable to take the action that will protect us, that will protect our country, that will protect our children and future generations.  There is really no better way to describe it than through the words of Sergeant Stryker: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.”

It’s time to wake up.

I yield the floor.