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Support Our Troops: Combat Climate Change

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A Marine Corps officer once showed me a map of the world that indicated areas of future concern for the United States military. A swirl of color raced around the equator, sweeping through sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, engulfing parts of Asia. The map struck me because it seemed to be a map of the areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change: food insecurity, water shortages, energy struggles, and natural disasters. Desert regions, low lying jungles, and areas rich in oil but little else, all seem to have military planners worried. And rightfully so.

In July Oxfam International released a new study, "Suffering the Science," which examines how climate change is affecting people in the nearly 100 countries where it works to provide humanitarian aid. The report puts together the latest science on climate change with the stories of real people who are affected by it.

The findings are bleak.

Seasons are "shrinking," the report says, becoming less distinct, which leads to more failures among staple crops such as maize and rice, which are extremely vulnerable to rising temperatures. Rice production in the Philippines could drop by 50-70 per cent as early as 2020, the Asian Development Bank warns. The UN Food and Agriculture organization estimates that over 1.5 billion people are vulnerable to food insecurity due to climate change right now. Climate change is also affecting global health, as a joint University College London/The Lancet study found. Diseases are spreading to areas where they were previously unknown and increasing their death tolls. Water shortages are causing outbreaks of water-borne illnesses and sparking internecine skirmishes in dry areas. 26 million people have already been displaced because of climate change.

In short, the world's poorest are the most vulnerable to the immediate effects of our world getting warmer.

But the worst is yet to come.

By 2050, 200 million people may be uprooted by climate change every year because of hunger, environmental degradation, and loss of land. This will put enormous pressure on national borders, on global health care, on peacekeeping and police forces. As the cartographers and strategists who made the map that the Marine showed me certainly knew, climate change isn't just a problem for the world's poor. At least, it won't be for long.

In 2007, the Center for Naval Analysis brought together eleven retired generals to examine how climate change might affect American interests around the world. Aside from urging for greater oil independence to free us from pouring nearly $500,000 per minute into the pockets of unfriendly regimes, the generals concluded that climate change acts as a "threat multiplier" for American national security interests. Problems of regional instability, radicalization, and bad governance are exacerbated by the growing environmental disaster.

Displaced and vulnerable populations are fertile breeding grounds for extremism and contribute to the instability and failure of states and state institutions. Climate change has even been implicated as a factor in the crisis in Darfur, and fights over fresh water are raging in Somalia and across the horn of Africa, a region where Al Qaeda is gaining footing. Talk to anyone in the West Bank or Gaza, and before long you'll hear anger over Israeli control of water.

As a global leader, the United States will continue to be called upon to help. It will be our soldiers who are asked to intervene in failed states; it will be our aid dollars and military personnel called upon to save lives, as they were in Indonesia after the Tsunami. We currently have a 600 soldier counter insurgency operation in the Philippines and ramping up operations in AFRICOM, the United States Military Command for Africa. Though India and China must also take steps to address their carbon emissions, we cannot wait for them to catch up. It will not be India and China to whom the world looks for leadership in this crisis and it will not be India and China whose soldiers will be on the front lines of disasters resulting from climate change. As Jon Powers, COO of the Truman National Security Project and a former Captain in Operation Iraqi Freedom has said about delaying action on climate change,

"from a military perspective, we cannot wait for a threat to completely show itself. When there's a risk, you've got to address that risk."

For this reason, The Truman National Security Project, along with VoteVets.org, VetPAC, and the National Security Initiative have launched Operation Free, an advocacy organization that is leveraging the experience of veterans and national security experts to demand action to combat climate change.

There are plenty of economic arguments to be made for curbing our carbon emissions; there are plenty of humanitarian and moral arguments, but the one that reluctant lawmakers need to hear is that it is in our vital national security interest to act now. According to a recent poll, most of the public (across party lines) supports government action on climate change, and the Senate needs to overcome obstacles placed by climate change deniers in their ranks and Astroturf campaigns launched by Big Oil, such as the sham Energy Citizens Campaign.

Our soldiers are on the front lines of the climate change crisis and will be for years to come unless our legislators and our businessmen catch up and address the causes of these crises immediately.