September 14, 2017

Time to Wake Up: National Security Implications of Climate Change

Mr. President, as the Senate considers the annual authorization of our military and national defense programs, I am here for my 178th “Time to Wake Up” speech, to discuss the security risks climate change presents to our Nation. I urge my colleagues to heed the warnings from our national security experts, not just the self-serving propaganda of the fossil fuel industry that blankets us.

What are these national security risks?

A first order of security risk is the physical damage climate change is causing in our atmosphere, oceans, and environment. Science and our senses are already perceiving this damage, indeed already measuring this damage. This order of security risk—risk to the Earth’s natural order—will hurt farming communities, coastal communities, fishing communities, and anyone vulnerable to wildfires and extreme weather all around the world. Of course, the poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are to this risk.

The second order of security risk from climate change is the consequences in human society from those physical, biological, and chemical changes in our Earth’s environment. As farms or fisheries fail, people are impoverished and dislocated. Scarcity of resources leads to conflicts and confrontations. Storms and fires and floods can make the suffering acute. People who are hungry or dislocated or torn from their roots can become desperate, can become radicalized and violent. That is why the Department of Defense has for many years called climate change a “catalyst of conflict.”

Researchers from NASA and the University of Arizona determined that drought in Syria was very likely the worst in a thousand years. Massive crop failures and livestock losses moved farmers into stressed cities, where popular protests met brutal violence from the Assad regime. The tide of refugees from that chaos swamped Europe. To the extent the droughts in Syria were a root cause of the discontent that led to the conflict, and ultimately to the flight of refugees, European governments have seen this second order of security risk up close.

There is a third order of security risk, and that is damage to the keystone institutions of our present world order—market capitalism and democratic government. We depend for the quality of life we enjoy on market capitalism and democratic governance, and those institutions—capitalism and democracy—in turn depend on popular approval and confidence.

But if you are a person whose livelihood has been harmed by the first-order environmental effects of climate change or if you are a person swept up in the second-order societal effects of climate change or even if you are simply a person who is dismayed as you witness the suffering and harm caused by climate change around you, you will want answers. It is human nature to want answers. When people are hurt, they want a reckoning. When that reckoning comes, the discredit to institutions like capitalism and democracy could be profound for having failed to act in face of a known risk.

Add to that failure to act a moral failure—why the failure to act? Fossil fuel companies, corporate entities, are knowingly causing this harm, and at least in the United States, they are aggressively fighting political solutions to the problem. They are fighting with professionally administered misinformation. Climate denial is the original fake news—with an absurd arsenal of political money.

Companies not in the fossil fuel industry often have excellent climate policies within their corporate fence lines and sometimes even for their supply chains. But as we know in this building, these good companies collectively take essentially no action, particularly here in Congress, to offset the political force of the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, many companies with good climate policies nevertheless support industry organizations that are the instruments of the fossil fuel companies in preventing solutions.

This all stands to be a lasting and dangerous discredit to the corporate sector and to market capitalism generally, and the discredit will worsen as the danger worsens.

In Congress, we have nothing to brag about. We have shown ourselves unable to resist the fossil fuel industry, despite knowing it to be deeply burdened with obvious and enormous conflicts of interest and despite clear and repeated warnings from our national security experts. They could not have made it plainer.

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.” Similar were the 2010 QDR and our national intelligence reviews.

During his Senate confirmation process, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told this body, “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” That is, climate change needs to be a part of command planning.

In response to a question from the Armed Services Committee, he testified, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate—such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others—impact our security situation. I will ensure that the Department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

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.”

The Government Accountability Office is our Federal Government’s watchdog. GAO has warned that climate change could affect military testing, training, and operating activities, hampering readiness and mission continuity. They have also warned of DOD’s “fiscal exposure” to climate change. GAO says that climate change is already affecting our defense infrastructure around the globe—555,000 facilities and 28 million acres of land, with a replacement value of close to $850 billion. For instance, the Army’s Fort Irwin, CA, is susceptible to heavy rain and flooding. Air Force radar installations in Alaska stand on unstable, thawing permafrost. The Diego Garcia installation in the Indian Ocean and Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia each face rising seas.

 In his new book The Water Will Come, author Jeff Goodell quotes the former Norfolk naval station commander, Joe Bouchard. The commander said: “It was not a nuisance problem—it was not a minor operational issue. Sea-level rise was interfering with the combat readiness for the Atlantic fleet.” I repeat: Sea-level rise was interfering with the combat readiness of our Atlantic fleet.

The Navy is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to raise piers and other infrastructure above the rising waters. Goodell writes: “But a base like Norfolk . . . is the hub of an entire ecosystem that has grown up around it . . . fuel suppliers and electrical lines and railroad tracks and repair shops and . . . housing . . . and . . . schools. . . . You can’t just move all this to some random spot.” What is happening in Norfolk is pretty damn serious.

In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry went to Norfolk, and he asked officers there how long they thought the base could hold out. “Twenty to 50 years,” Captain J. Pat Rios replied. Goodell describes it as what he calls “an extraordinary moment in the annals of American military history: A U.S. naval captain had just told the Secretary of State that the strategically important base, home to six aircraft carriers and key to operations in Europe and the Middle East, would be essentially inoperable in as little as 20 years.”

The bill approved by the Armed Services Committee recognizes this and requires the Pentagon to submit a “comprehensive threat assessment,” describing the climate risks to military missions and the climate-related vulnerabilities of that massive DOD infrastructure. The Department is further directed to submit an ‘‘implementation master plan,’’ detailing the steps that DOD will take to mitigate climate-related mission risks, incorporate climate-related events in combatant commanders’ theater campaign plans, address military infrastructure vulnerabilities, update military construction standards for predicted flooding and extreme weather, and evaluate DOD’s progress adapting to climate change. I commend Chairman John McCain and Ranking Member Jack Reed, my senior Senator, for seeing to it that this language was included in this bill.

I also commend my House colleague Jim Langevin for getting similar language into the House version. The House provision states—by the way, this was a big bipartisan provision when it was voted on in the House. It states: “Climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States,” and it further requires that the Department of Defense be “prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

In the shadow of Harvey and Irma, storms that were amped up by warmed seas and that flooded further inland due to risen seas and that held and dumped more rain because of warmed air, and watching the unprecedented fires blazing across the American West and with these bipartisan provisions agreed to in the NDAA bills, I hope we may be on the brink of finally freeing ourselves from the relentless, remorseless political pressures of the fossil fuel industry. They have had their way around here long enough. We need to have a long overdue discussion of the effects of climate change on our national security, on our health, on our economy, and, ultimately, on our national reputation.

Pope Francis has reminded us that we have “a moral responsibility. We have to take it seriously.” He said: “You can see the effects of climate change and scientists have clearly said what path we have to follow.” He went on: “If someone is doubtful that this is true, they should ask scientists. They are very clear. They are not opinions made on the fly. They are very clear.” Pope Francis is a scientist himself, and having heard plenty of confessions, he is also a man of the world, and he understands the weakness of humankind. He understands political pressures. “When you don’t want to see, you don’t see,” he said. But he reminds us that “history will judge the decisions.”

America is an exemplary Nation. As an exemplary Nation, one that projects power by example and not just by force, America will be stronger and more respected if we pull together and craft American climate solutions. For a country that seeks to stand as an example in this world—a city on a hill, we often say—and a country that benefits from the power of that example, this shaming display of out-of-control special interest influence will have consequences. The world is watching. We have a role to play in this world, we Americans, and it is time we got about it before the consequences of climate change become, to quote Donald Trump in 2009, “catastrophic and irreversible.”

I yield the floor.