John Kerry at Old Dominion

On Tuesday of this week, Nov 10, 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, warning of the impact of climate change/ instability will have on national security.

It was a wide-ranging talk, simultaneously addressing implications for defense infrastructure and logistics, the types of missions the military may be handed in the future, and the role some of the downstream effects of climate change have played and will continue to play in either fomenting or prolonging conflicts.

While the text of the speech is itself fairly unremarkable, i.e. no one would confuse Kerry’s words with those of Roosevelt or Churchill, in a sense, it was an extraordinary moment; both an admission and a declaration that the US government, must, as an entirely practical matter, consider the role of climate change in formulating its diplomatic and defense posture around the world.

Below are four extended excerpts from his remarks.

…the reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.

When we talk about climate change, we’re not just talking about the harm that is caused to the habitat for butterflies or polar bears – as some people try to mock it – as serious as those effects might be. We are talking about the impacts on people – people everywhere – of severe droughts, rapid sea level rise. We’re talking about the impacts on whole cities of unpredictable and uncontrollable extreme weather events. We’re talking about the impact on entire countries of fundamental shocks to the global agricultural system.

And when you factor in all of these things, my friends, you can see why, when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re not just up against some really serious ecological challenges. We also have to prepare ourselves for the potential social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease, which we saw a near brush with Ebola in three African countries last year. And we have to heighten our national security readiness to deal with the possible destruction of vital infrastructure and the mass movement of refugees, particularly in parts of the world that already provide fertile ground for violent extremism and terror.

***

In recent years, what we used to think of as extreme weather has started to become plain-old weather. In some places, the kind of flooding that happened every 500 years or so is now expected to happen every 25 years. Americans living in California are currently experiencing one of the longest, most severe droughts in their state’s history. And it’s hard to even to turn on the news without hearing about a record-breaking storm, drought, or wildfire.

And it’s well known by now that these kinds of events are expected to become more frequent as our planet warms and our glaciers melt, as our seas rise.

In other words, this is going to be like Mother Nature on steroids.

And that is going to have very real impacts on our communities, on our economy, our military, and it will exacerbate the development challenges that we already face.

Now, the physical security implications are really pretty straightforward. I went to Tacloban in the Philippines, not too long after Typhoon Haiyan, just – what was it – in 2013 after I had become Secretary. No words can do justice to the level of the destruction that they experienced or that I saw: an entire community leveled; water up to the second floor of the airport’s traffic control tower; cars, homes, and lives turned upside-down. And as we flew in, we saw trees scattered like toothpicks along the mountainside. And most devastating of all, the storm killed more than 5,000 men, women, and children.

The cost of rebuilding after a storm like that is astronomical. Last year in the United States, there were eight extreme weather events that came with a price tag exceeding a billion dollars. That is a billion dollars – or more – spent to rebuild and reinforce after each individual event – eight billion. And we’re struggling to find three billion for the Green Climate Fund for the talks in Paris.

And when extreme weather leads to natural disasters and humanitarian suffering – guess what – our military responds and they respond bravely and with great skill, but it takes our troops away from work on other important missions.

Which leads me to another major factor and another major reason that climate change is a security threat: It has a direct impact on military readiness.

Now, of course, this is something that folks in Hampton Roads know pretty well. Norfolk Naval Station is the biggest naval installation – not just in the United States, but in the world. And the land it is built on is literally sinking.

Local sea levels are rising twice as fast as the global average. The waters have already crept up a foot and a half since the 1920s. The streets now flood when there’s a rainstorm at high tide. And the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has projected that if the current trends hold, the sea in Norfolk could rise by five and a half feet or more by the end of this very century. That’s within the life expectancy of a newborn child today. Think about what that could mean for this base and this community – and for the 28 other military facilities in the Hampton Roads area. Think about what that could mean for the U.S. Navy fleet – 20 percent of which is home-ported nearby. I just left one of the ships, the USS San Antonio, where I was briefed on what’s happening and sea level rise on the East Coast. This region, next to New Orleans, is the most impacted. And they talked to me about the preparations they have to make and are making now in order to try to deal with this.

What’s causing most of this sea level rise is the one-two punch that is mandated by the laws of science – not politics – science: As ocean water warms, it expands. But that’s not all: As the atmosphere warms, ice all over the world melts. Now, we’re seeing this dramatically in the Arctic – from the glaciers of Alaska, which President Obama and I visited to try to point this out during this last summer, to the massive Ice Sheet of Greenland. Now, it may sound kind of flip to some of you, but what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Make no mistake about it: Arctic ice melt is contributing to sea level rise right here in Norfolk now. And the national security implications of a changing Arctic were a key factor in my deciding to make addressing climate change a central element in our current chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Now, ice that is in the Arctic, as all of you know from your science, displaces water. And so as it melts, it doesn’t have the same impact except for that above surface, et cetera. But ice on Greenland is on rock. It is not currently displacing anything. And you can look there in the summer and see a torrent, a river racing underneath that ice out into the ocean as it melts away. And you can look at graphic images, digital, of that shrinking ice mass year by year over the last years. Just go Google it, look it up; you’ll see it.

If our military vehicles are unable to move anywhere in the region here or elsewhere because they’re up to their axles in water and all the roads leading into and out of the base here are flooded, that affects military readiness. Similarly, if the high risk of wildfires prevents our troops somewhere from training with live ammunition, that affects readiness. If the permafrost our Alaska bases are built on begins to thaw out, as it is in some places, and then becomes less stable, that affects military readiness.

And the direct impacts on our military’s ability to defend our nation are not the end of the peril that climate change could pose to our national security; they’re just the beginning.

***

For example, in Nigeria, climate change didn’t lead to the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram. But the severe drought that that country suffered – and the government’s inability to cope with it – helped create the political and economic volatility that the militants exploited to seize villages, butcher teachers, and kidnap hundreds of innocent school girls.

Similarly, it’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.

Again, I am not suggesting that climate change was the primary reason for the crisis in Syria – obviously, it wasn’t. The war was launched by a brutal dictator who began attacking, torturing, and barrel-bombing his own people. But the drought that devastated communities across the country exacerbated instability on the ground and made a bad situation worse and forced people to migrate, so you had a mixing in a very sectarian place, where, at a sectarian time of definition, where people were exploiting that sectarianism, that made a ready pool of recruits.

Just last month, a study was published indicating, quote, “the combination of high temperatures and humidity could, within just a century, result in extreme conditions around the Persian Gulf that are intolerable to human beings, if climate change continues unabated.” Scholars suggest that access to air conditioning could well mean the difference between life and death in such hot spots as Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE.

And the prospect of a hotter, drier climate throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia will place even more strain on the most precious and essential resource of all – fresh water. We’ve already seen tensions rise around the basins of the Nile River in Africa, the Indus River in South Asia, and of course, the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.

Consider that almost every country with land borders shares some international river basins with its neighbors. Historically, this has led to more cooperation than conflict. But if the water starts to disappear, and climate change is expected to significantly alter both access to and the availability of fresh water, imagine the tensions that can rise. There have been books written about war over water. Pressures and demands will steadily increase, and the future may look very different from the past.

Our future national security strategy is going to be affected also by what’s going on in the Arctic. The melting of the polar cap is opening sea lanes that never before existed. The potential there is already there for a global race to exploit the resources of the region. Everybody knows Russia planted a flag on the North Pole bottom. Other countries are up there, China and others, with their ships, mapping out the exploitation of resources, including oil, natural gas, fish. Economic riches tend to attract military interest as nations seek to ensure their own rights are protected. And we know, because we track it, that these countries – like Russia, China, and others – are active in the Arctic. China is modernizing and expanding its navy. The United States believes that all activities in the Arctic should be carried out peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law.

But climate change raises the stakes, and we all need to ensure that we are taking steps to prevent competition – new competition – from leading to conflict.

The bottom line is that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress. And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today – economically, technologically, militarily, in every way imaginable – instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere. The kind of strife that we’re talking about is not going to be contained by international borders any more than all of those refugees pouring out of Syria are contained by the borders of Europe.

For one thing, areas facing unrest and instability and weak governance are breeding grounds for violent extremism. And we all know that to terrorist groups like Daesh/ISIL, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, people of all nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and sects are targets.

And then there’s the issue of mass migration itself. People who can no longer make a decent living the way their families have for generations – by farming, fishing, herding – will have no choice but to seek other opportunities, mostly in other places. And those other places may not have the capacity to support them either.

What about families who can’t afford to buy food for their children because the prices are skyrocketing because of shortages? What about supermarket shelves that could be empty in various places where they don’t have the kind of delivery system that we’re blessed to have in our country? Those people too could become desperate and begin looking for other means to survive.

Human beings are just like any other species in that regard. When our environments no longer provide us for the things that we need to survive, we will do everything we can to find a new place to live. And history has shown that, documented through the centuries.

As I speak, we are in the middle of one of the worst refugee and migration crises in decades. And I would underscore: Unless we are able to respond to the urgency of this moment, the horrific situation that we are viewing today may deteriorate exponentially in light of more intense droughts, rising seas, and other impacts of climate change.

***

… just as the Pentagon has begun to view our military planning through a climate lens, ultimately, we have to integrate climate considerations into every aspect of our foreign policy – from development and humanitarian aid to peacebuilding and diplomacy.

And that starts with getting a better understanding of the complex links between climate change and national security.

Today I am pleased to announce that I will be convening a task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities. For example, the strategic plans our embassies use should account for expected climate impacts so that our diplomats can work with host countries to focus on prevention – to proactively address climate-driven stresses on people’s livelihoods, health, and security and to do it before it evolves into deep grievances that fuel conflicts.

Given the “threat-multiplier” effect we have already observed in many places around the world, collaboration on climate risk assessment should be part and parcel of every one of our diplomatic relationships, and we will see to it that it is.

We’re also working closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development to improve our conflict early warning and prevention capability. The U.S. Government currently employs state-of-the-art tools to help address the fragility and risk of instability around the world. By overlaying an analysis of climate vulnerability with those assessments, we think we’ll be able to better identify areas where combined risks are particularly high and where there are critical opportunities for conflict prevention and resilience before it is too late.

And here’s the upshot: If we can better identify “red flags” of risk around the world, we can better target our diplomacy and development assistance in order to enable those nations to become more resilient, more secure, and less likely to fall into a full-fledged war or humanitarian crisis.

So there are many things – there are many things that we can do and we are beginning to do in order to prepare for the changes before we’re too late to obviously stop them.

***

Here’s a link to The Washington Post’s somewhat brief coverage.

The complete text of the speech is here.

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