John F. Kerry, a Democrat, was secretary of state from 2013 to 2017 and is a visiting distinguished statesman at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Many have become immune or anesthetized to the daily assault on truth that is the Trump presidency, an alternative reality where North Korea has denuclearized and Russia might not have attacked our elections in 2016. It would be laughable were it not dangerous. Presidents are supposed to hold consensus together, not invent fictions to fray it.
But the administration’s most dangerous collision with facts has been its effort to paralyze U.S. efforts to join the nations of the world in confronting climate change. The White House plans to convene “experts” to “determine” whether climate change is a national security threat. We know what the outcome will be: President Trump’s council of doubters and deniers will convene to undo a 26-year-old factual consensus that climate change is a national-security threat multiplier.
As we careen toward irreversible environmental tipping points, we have no time to waste debating alternative facts only to invest years more reestablishing trust in the real ones. No panel 10 years from now can put the ice sheets back together or hold back rising tides.
Begin with the kind of facts that John Adams called “stubborn things.” In 1991, President George H.W. Bush’s administration assessed in its National Security Strategy that threats such as climate change, which “respect no international boundaries,” were “already contributing to political conflict.” Each of Bush’s successors included climate change in their National Security Strategies. Even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush’s administration made room in the 2002 National Security Strategy to warn of “dangerous human interference with the global climate.”
Were four consecutive administrations wrong? No. The factual basis of climate change’s threat originated not with politicians but with the national security community, including the intelligence community. Eleven retired military leaders constituting the military advisory board at CNA, a naval think tank in Arlington, described climate change in 2007 as “a threat multiplier for instability.” Seven years later, 16 retired flag officers representing all branches of the military implored Americans to understand the severity of “a salient national security concern” because “time and tide wait for no one.”
Instead of convening a kangaroo court, the president might want to talk with the adults he once trusted enough to fill his top national security positions. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats has reported that climate change would increase “the risk of social unrest, migration, and interstate tension in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan.” Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the Armed Services Committee last year: “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.”
These officials weren’t making back-of-the-envelope projections or envisioning some distant, dystopic future. Climate change is already impacting national security. The land that houses Naval Station Norfolk, the biggest naval installation in the world, is literally sinking. In fact, sea levels on the East Coast are rising twice as fast as the global average, thanks to uneven ocean temperatures and geology.
Consider what further sea-level rise could mean for this base or for the U.S. Navy fleet, 20 percent of which is home-ported nearby. Increased risk of wildfires can even prevent troops from training with live ammunition. Willful denial won’t change the fact that our military readiness will be degraded when the permafrost our Alaskan bases are built on begins to thaw out.
And it doesn’t end with military impacts. While climate change didn’t lead to the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, the country’s severe drought and the government’s inability to cope with it helped create the volatility that militants exploited to seize villages, butcher teachers and kidnap hundreds of innocent girls.
The prospect of a more arid climate throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia will increasingly strain the most essential resource of all: fresh water. We’ve already seen tensions rise around the basins of the Nile, Central Asia’s Indus River and the Mekong in Southeast Asia. Areas facing unrest, instability and weak governance are breeding grounds for violent extremism. Climate change will only exacerbate mass migration in places already enduring economic, political and social stress.
There are, of course, some people cheering the president’s apparent attempt to erase climate change from U.S. national security considerations, and they live in Beijing and Moscow. China and Russia have for years been mapping the resource competition, military implications and geostrategic challenges that climate change will present in an ever-changing, climate-impacted Arctic. What a gift to them if we stop making our own assessments because we have our heads buried in the sand while their eyes are on the tundra.
We can spend the next two years debating whether two plus two equals five. But it would mean someday a young American in uniform will likely be put in harm’s way because truth lost out to talking heads. Debate how to address the climate national security threat, not whether it’s real. Mr. President, listen to our military leaders and disband your climate denial panel.