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Climate Change Is A Growing National Security Concern, Say Retired Military Leaders

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SIMON MAINA via Getty Images
SIMON MAINA via Getty Images

A report released Tuesday from an advisory group of retired U.S. military leadership echoes the findings of other recent reports on climate change: It is real, it is already happening and it poses major threats to the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The federally funded Center for Naval Analyses and its Military Advisory Board, a group of 16 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals, affirm in the report that climate events like flooding, prolonged drought and rising sea levels, and the subsequent population dislocation and food insecurity, will serve as "catalysts for instability and conflict" in vulnerable regions of the world.

"We no longer have the option to wait and see," former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta write in a foreword to the report, which they describe as a "bipartisan call to action."

The report laments the politicization of climate change and continued inaction from Congress on the issue. "Politically charged debate has silenced sound public discourse," it reads in part.

"We hope this report will both influence public opinion as well as influence national security policymakers and leaders," retired Navy rear admiral and co-author David Titley told The Huffington Post. "We are speaking out because we believe the risk is accelerating, and will continue to do so unless action is taken now."

CNA's Military Advisory Board stressed the importance of addressing climate change collaboratively. "Neither the DOD, nor any other agency, can act alone to address the impacts of climate change," the report reads.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told The New York Times on Tuesday that American foreign policy will be affected by the climate events predicted in this report. "The intelligence community takes it seriously, and it's translated into action," he said.

The report cites previous climate change and security assessments, as well as the work of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Government's Global Change Research Program. However, its authors also emphasize their own credentials.

"The messenger counts: This report is signed, not by environmentalists or climate scientists, but by 16 admirals and generals who collectively have over 500 years of service to our country," said Titley, who formerly served as Oceanographer of the Navy and now teaches in the meteorology department at Pennsylvania State University.

Climate change and national security aren't two separate issues, retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney told Public Radio International last week. "The [2012] insurrection in Mali where the Tuareg went north -- drought caused that," said Cheney. "It dried up their crops, they had to move, and they had to make a living. They went to northern Mali, and that started the insurrection there."

"We know for a fact, obviously, that climate change contributed to that drought," Cheney went on. "That's just one example of instability that was caused by climate change, but there are probably dozens of others."

"This isn’t some far-off-in-the-future threat," climate scientist Michael Mann told HuffPost, adding that the report "reinforces what we've been hearing from national security experts for more than a decade: that among the greatest threat to national security in the decades ahead is the increased conflict that will arise as a growing global population grapples with decreased land, water and food resources due to the damaging impacts of climate change."

Tuesday's report comes a week after the latest National Climate Assessment, a massive interagency government report in its third edition since 2000. The congressionally mandated report, which clocks in at over 800 pages, is a detailed look at the current and future effects of climate change on the United States.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," the National Climate Assessment states.

Yet despite the threats already posed by severe heat waves and heavy precipitation events, the NCA cites a number of ways for the U.S. to address climate change and stave off its worst effects.

"The climate hazards are looking as severe as ever, but I think there is a message contained in the report that our ability to respond is about getting going," Radley Horton, a scientist at Columbia University Earth Institute's Center for Climate Systems Research and one of the NCA's lead authors, told HuffPost.

A 2013 Pew Research poll in 39 countries found that only 40 percent of Americans see global climate change as a major threat to the U.S. When Americans were asked to rank a list of potential threats to their country, climate change came in sixth place, behind North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs, Islamic extremism, international financial instability and China's power. But to the rest of the world, climate change is seen as a much bigger danger. When the responses of the 39 countries are added up, climate change emerges as the No. 1 issue that people are concerned about.

Speaking at an energy policy conference at Columbia University earlier this month, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the U.S. is "halfway" to meeting its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to 17 percent below where they were in 2005, a target laid out in President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan last year.

At the same event, White House counselor John Podesta said there's "no silver bullet" to decarbonize the economy overnight. He asserted the role of natural gas as a "bridge fuel," but acknowledged there are "challenges" to its development.

"Only by combating human-caused climate change through a reduction of global carbon emissions can we hope to avoid an escalation of conflict and its dire societal consequences," Mann told HuffPost.

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