March 27, 2019

Time To Wake Up: Climate Change and National Security

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Madam President, I’m grateful to be joined on the floor today by my senior Senator from Rhode Island and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Reed.  We rise today to speak about the perils climate change poses to our national security.

I’d like to start by offering a fact and a proposition.

The fact: as reported in the 2017 Climate Science Report, oceans are absorbing more than nine zettajoules of heat energy each year.

The proposition: that America is and remains the indispensable nation, exceptional and exemplary.

Let’s unpack the fact a little bit — more than 9 zettajoules of heat energy going into the ocean annually.  First, what’s a zettajoule?

A zettajoule is a sextillion joules, or 10 to the 21st power joules.  A lot of zeros.

More practically, 9 zettajoules is around a dozen times humankind’s total annual energy consumption.

More kinetically, the added heat in our oceans is equivalent to four Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs exploding in the oceans every second.  Every minute, 240 Hiroshimas.  In the time of my remarks, more than 3,000 Hiroshima explosions, with the oceans capturing all of that heat energy.

Now let’s unpack the proposition a little — America as the world’s indispensable exemplary nation.

Years ago, Daniel Webster described the work of our Founders as having “set the world an example.”  This was not a unique vision of America.  From Jonathan Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, we have called ourselves “a city on a hill,” set high for the world to witness.  From President Kennedy to President Obama, inaugural addresses have noted that the glow of our ideals “light[s] the world.”  President Clinton has argued that “[p]eople the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power.”

When Daniel Webster said that our founding fathers had set the world an example, he went on to say this: “The last hopes of mankind, therefore, rest with us; and if it should be proclaimed, that our example had become an argument against the experiment, the knell of popular liberty would be sounded throughout the earth.”

Now, how do the fact and the proposition relate?  Three ways.

First, is the climate chaos mankind will increasingly have to bear.  A recent scientific study published by Nature found 99.9999 percent confidence that Earth is warming due to human activity.  I could give you any number of risks, like global sea level rise, or increasing wildfires and droughts, or the unprecedented CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere.  All of this affects human health, agriculture, and our economy.  All these risks have national security consequences.

Through the years, America’s national security experts could not have made it much plainer.

Fifty-eight former military and national security leaders sent a letter this month to President Trump warning that “[c]limate change is real, it is happening now, it is driven by humans, and it is accelerating.”  They went on to say the administration’s denial of climate science will “erode our national security,” and warned that the effects of climate change are already being “used by our adversaries as a weapon of war,” citing ISIS’s control of water during climate change-exacerbated drought.  The letter urges the President to “drop the politics, and allow our national security and science agencies to do their jobs.”

The Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review described climate change as a “global threat multiplier,” warning that “the pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world.”

Former Admiral Samuel Locklear, as head of U.S. Pacific Command, warned in 2013 that climate change was the biggest long-term security threat in his area of operation, noting the need for the military to organize for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”

“If it goes bad,” he said, “you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.”

A recent survey of nearly 300 active duty and veteran service members found that 77 percent “consider it fairly or very likely that military bases in coastal or island regions will be damaged by flooding or severe storms as a result of climate change.”

In response to a provision championed by Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin and by Senator Reed in the NDAA bill, the Department of Defense released a report examining the effects of climate change on the military.

Of 79 DOD installations evaluated, 53 currently experience recurrent flooding, 43 are experiencing drought conditions, 36 are prone to wildfires, 6 are seeing desertification, and 1 is dealing with thawing permafrost.  In 20 years, the DOD predicts an additional seven installations will experience flooding, five more will see drought conditions, and seven will see wildfire risks.  The report failed to list the top ten most vulnerable military installations and ignores the Marine Corps, but it nevertheless warned: “[t]he effects of a changing climate area a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations.”

So the national security ties to climate change begin with our military.

Second, Henry Kissinger once told me that the great revolutions of the world have always come from a “confluence of resentments.”  The poorest, those who live closest to the land, who lead subsistence lives, will suffer most the brunt of the coming change.  And they will resent it.

Divide the world into three groups:  One group, the poorest, starves when its fisheries collapse.  The middle group is distressed when fisheries collapse but has the resources to find alternative food sources.

At the top, the fish in our air conditioned supermarket cost a bit more, and come from elsewhere; and we may drive home in our SUV with a slightly larger grocery bill.  The first two groups will resent it when they get hurt by the SUV crowd.  Turn the pain up high enough, and good luck defending with them the parliamentary democracy and market capitalism that brought this on.

The injustice will amplify the resentments.

Third, how does America fare as the exemplary nation in all of this?  Very badly.  Democracy and capitalism are our hallmarks, and their failure to address climate change is not a good story.

Worst of all, will be the reason for it.

The climate denial apparatus that has won unseemly influence in Congress now, will surely lose the test of time. The consequences of climate change are determined by laws of chemistry, physics, and biology. Those laws cannot be repealed or wished away.  Propaganda can manipulate people, passions, and politics, but it has no effect on the immutable laws of nature.

So the fossil fuel industry’s denial apparatus will ultimately be exposed as a fraud and scandal, and history will lament and condemn it as one of the great American frauds and scandals.

The judgment will come harshly, and it will fall harshly on an American democracy that let itself be corrupted by this apparatus.

James Madison in the Federalist Papers warned of “moments in public affairs when the people [can be] misled by artful misrepresentations of interested men,” and that, misled, they “may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”  We have certainly been misled by artful misrepresentations of the interested men of the fossil fuel industry.

It may be hard for us in our world of air-conditioning, SUVs and imported fresh fish, to contemplate resentment and revolution. 

But the harms to the ocean of 9 zettajoules of heat are on a collision course with our “city on a hill.”  

We urgently need to show the world that market capitalism and democracy don’t fail when presented with big problems, if we are to head off a confluence of resentments we are now making inevitable.