03.14.17

Time to Wake Up: The Effects of Climate Change on our National Security

Mr. President, I rise today for my 160th time to wake up speech, this one focused on the security consequences of our failure to deal with carbon emissions and climate change.  

My remarks at the Munich Security Conference pointed out that climate change presents several orders of security risk to society.

The first order of security risk is physical damage:  damage that science and our senses are already perceiving and measuring in our atmosphere, oceans and environment.  This security risk—risk to the Earth’s present natural state—will hurt farming communities, coastal communities, fishing communities, and anyone vulnerable to wildfires and extreme weather.  The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are.

The second order of security risk from climate change is the consequences in human society from that physical, biological and chemical damage in our environment.  As farms and fisheries fail, people are impoverished and dislocated.  Scarce resources lead to conflicts and confrontations.  Storms and fires can make suffering acute.  And people who are hungry, or dislocated, or torn from their roots can become desperate, radicalized and violent.  That is why the United States Department of Defense has for years called climate change a “catalyst of conflict.” 

Drought in Syria, for instance, has been described as a root cause of the conflict there—a conflict that has killed more than 400,000 people, according to some estimates, and displaced more than 11 million.  Researchers from NASA and the University of Arizona have determined that the drought there was very likely the worst in a millennium.  Massive crop failures and livestock losses moved farmers into stressed cities, where popular protests met with brutal violence, and the tide of refugees from that chaos swamped Europe. Nigeria, Sudan and Central America are other areas where violence and flight are driven by scarce resources.

So the second order is the societal damage that cascades from the natural damage caused by climate change.

The third order of security risk is perhaps the most dangerous, and that is reputational damage to the keystone institutions of our present world order: market capitalism and democratic government.  People around the world who have been harmed by the first-order environmental effects of climate change, or people who get swept up in the second-order societal effects of climate change, will want answers, as will many who are witness to the global suffering and harm caused by climate change.  When that reckoning comes, as it will, the discredit to institutions like capitalism and democracy, which failed to act even when loudly and clearly warned, could be profound. 

The failure of action by these institutions is compounded by a moral failure.  Fossil fuel companies are knowingly causing this harm, and they are aggressively fighting solutions to the problem.  Their weapons are as disreputable as their conduct: professionally-administered misinformation (climate denial is the original fake news), and massive political money. 

The United States Congress has shown itself unable to resist the threats and blandishments of this industry, despite knowing of the industry’s enormous conflict of interest. 

This all stands to be a lasting blot on both democracy and capitalism, a blot that will worsen as the consequences of our climate failure worsen.  If you believe, as Daniel Webster did, in the power of America’s example, then you should worry about this terrible example of greed, ignorance and corruption triumphant. 

It’s not like we haven’t been warned.

The National Intelligence Council has estimated that worldwide demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent, respectively, in coming decades.  This increased resource demand is on a collision course with those first order harms disrupting fisheries and agriculture.  

The U.S. Institute for Peace has warned:

[P]oor responses to climatic shifts create shortages of resources such as land and water.  Shortages are followed by negative secondary impacts, such as more sickness, hunger, and joblessness.  Poor responses to these, in turn, open the door to conflict.

For those who discount this as a bunch of peaceniks’ prattle, let me add that in 2013, our National Intelligence Council put climate change, alongside events like “Nuclear War” and a “Severe Pandemic,” among the eight events with the greatest potential for global disruption—noting for climate change that “[d]ramatic and unforeseen changes are occurring at a faster rate than expected.”

The Department of Defense 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review described climate change as a “global threat multiplier.”  That report warned, “The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world.”

As head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear warned in 2013 that climate change was the biggest long-term security threat in his area of operation, noting the need to organize the military 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.”

Operation Free, a coalition of national security and veterans’ organizations, has continually pointed out the national security threat posed by climate change, as has the American Security Project, comprised of retired military flag officers.

The Government Accountability Office has warned that climate change is affecting defense infrastructure around the world, from sea level rise at Naval Station Norfolk, to heavy rain and flooding at Ft. Irwin, California, to thawing permafrost affecting Air Force radar installations in Alaska, to effects at faraway Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.   

And the Coast Guard must meet new demands as the ice caps melt in the Arctic: for transportation and shipping, for new fishing grounds, for resource exploration—and for conflict. 

In 2005, when Defense Secretary Mattis led Marine Corps Combat Development Command, he called on Navy researchers to find ways to make the military more energy-efficient to “unleash” U.S. military forces “from the tether [of] fuel.”  Senator Duckworth is passionate about the casualties sustained among her colleagues defending fuel supply lines. 

The military funds research into alternative energy and studies how climate change affects military capability because in the real world, where real lives are at risk, they can’t afford to believe the false facts peddled by the fossil fuel industry.

The people we entrust to keep us safe, who have to deal with real threats in the real world, recognize the danger climate change represents.   The National Intelligence Council said in January that “issues like . . . climate change invoke high stakes and will require sustained collaboration.”  Instead of that, we get a Congress and an administration that has deliberately let the fossil fuel industry occupy and sabotage the government of the United States. 

So I am going to start to push back.  Every time these tools of the fossil fuel industry to whom we in the Senate gave advice and consent go about their dirty business of climate denial, I am going to come to the Floor and object to consent requests.  Last week, Administrator Pruitt said carbon dioxide doesn’t cause climate change.  He gets that one lie for free.  But no more.  Not next time.  With the stakes this high, it can’t be free to have these fossil fuel tools spouting their fossil fuel nonsense from Senate-confirmed positions of authority. 

And starting now, it won’t be. 

I yield the floor.