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John Kerry

John Kerry

Posted: August 31, 2009 12:21 PM

We Can't Ignore the Security Threat from Climate Change


{crossposted at Operation Free}

On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush famously received an intelligence briefing entitled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda terrorists did just that.

Scientists tell us we have a 10-year window -- if even that -- before catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable and irreversible. The threat is real, and time is not on our side.

Facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. Here are a few you need to know: Atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels have risen 38% in the industrial era, from 280 to 385 parts per million (ppm). Scientists have warned that anything above 450 ppm -- a warming of 2 degrees Celsius -- will result in an unacceptable risk of catastrophic climate change.

The truth is that the threat we face is not an abstract concern for the future. It is already upon us and its effects are being felt worldwide, right now. Scientists project that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer of 2013. Not in 2050, but four years from now.

Make no mistake: catastrophic climate change represents a threat to human security, global stability, and -- yes -- even to American national security.

Climate change injects a major new source of chaos, tension, and human insecurity into an already volatile world. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity, and human displacement on a staggering scale. We risk fanning the flames of failed-statism, and offering glaring opportunities to the worst actors in our international system. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us.

The individual data points may sometimes be murky. But the pattern they create is irrefutably clear: We don't know if Hurricane Katrina was caused by climate change, but we do know that we are rapidly heading for a world where climate change causes worse Katrinas. We don't know with certainty whether climate change pushed Darfur over the edge, but we do know that it will cause more tension just like we've seen in Darfur.

Once you accept the science, it's clear that such massive environmental change will create dislocation, destruction, chaos, and conflict. And history teaches us that we are deluding ourselves if we think that we are insulated from world events.

The people of the tiny coastal village of Newtok, Alaska offer a harbinger of the challenges ahead. Citizens there recently voted to move their village nine miles inland because melting ice shelves made their old home too dangerous.

But don't take my word for it. Anyone who doubts the reality of climate change should go to Alaska and see the melting permafrost for themselves, or listen to the state's two U.S. senators tell worrisome stories about climate change's current -- not future -- impact on their state.

Anyone who doubts the threat should talk to the 11 retired American admirals and generals who warned in 2007 that "Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national-security challenges for the United States."

You can even ask the security planners in the Bush Administration, whose final national-defense strategy document recognized climate change among key trends that will shape U.S. defense policy in the coming years.

Or ask the National Intelligence Council -- the U.S. intelligence community's think-tank -- which has concluded that "global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national-security interests over the next 20 years."

Former CENTCOM Commander Anthony Zinni, no radical tree-hugger, put it simply: "We will pay for this one way or another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we'll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll."

Nowhere is the connection between climate and security more direct than in South Asia -- home to al Qaeda. Scientists now warn that the Himalayan glaciers which supply fresh water to a billion people in the region could disappear completely by 2035. Think about what this means: Water from the Himalayans flows through India and Pakistan. India's rivers are not only vital to its agriculture but are also critical to its religious practice. Pakistan, for its part, is heavily dependent on irrigated farming to avoid famine.

At a moment when the U.S. government is scrambling to ratchet down tensions and preparing to invest billions of dollars to strengthen Pakistan's capacity to deliver for its people -- climate change could work so powerfully in the opposite direction.

Worldwide, climate change risks making the most volatile places even more combustible.
The bottom line is that failure to tackle climate change risks much more than a ravaged environment: It risks a much more dangerous world, and a gravely threatened America.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Washington appreciates the stakes. It's tragic that we live at a time when if one were to dismiss the threat of terrorism, you'd be sent home in the next election. But there are no similar political consequences if you dismiss the science or the threat of climate change.

This winter, delegates from 192 nations will gather in Copenhagen to create a new global climate treaty. Between now and then, the United States Congress is expected to act on climate legislation.

The decisions we make in coming months will determine whether we meet this challenge head-on and prevail or if we are to suffer the worst consequences of a warming planet.

This time we have to connect the dots before we face catastrophe.

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