Obama Issues Most Dire Warning Yet Over Climate Change

The president's speech came just a week after approving a new round of drilling in the Arctic

"We need to act – and we need to act now," the president said during his climate change speech Wednesday. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

A week after signing off on a new round of offshore drilling off the coast of Alaska, President Obama on Wednesday delivered his most direct and dire warning yet about the threats we face from climate change.

Addressing a group of graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, the president noted that the Cadets "are part of the first generation of officers to begin [their] service in a world where the effects of climate change are so clearly upon us."

"I'm here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security," Obama said.

"This is not just a problem for countries on the coasts, or for certain regions of the world," he said.

"We need to act – and we need to act now."

The speech is important for a few reasons: It's further evidence of the evolution of climate change from a distant threat that we need to address for the good of future generations, to an immediate threat that poses real risks to the health and security of Americans today.

After the 2008 election, Obama tried to push climate legislation with arguments about green jobs and the moral imperative of taking care of the planet for future generations. When that failed, he was largely silent for the duration of his first term. But in the second term, thanks in part to impact of Hurricane Sandy and increasing extreme weather, Obama retooled his message and began talking about how climate change will affect food prices, the spread of infectious diseases and the public health implications of burning fossil fuels.

The notion that climate change is a threat to national security is not news to anyone in the Pentagon. When I began reporting my story on military and climate change late last year, it was clear to me that there are not a lot of climate skeptics in the military high command. After all, it's their job to deal with the world as it is, not as Big Oil lobbyists pretend it to be. But Pentagon officials are reluctant to talk openly about this, in part because they don't like to engage in heated political issues, but mostly because they fear climate deniers in Congress will slash their budgets if they tell the truth too bluntly.

Obama's latest speech also underscores the fact that he sees climate as a central part of his legacy, and one that he will push hard in what remains of his presidency. He has already signaled this by effectively killing the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as pushing the EPA to implement new rules limiting carbon pollution, which has predictably outraged coal-state Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell. Obama is also focusing a lot of diplomatic muscle on the upcoming IPCC climate agreement, which will be hammered out in Paris later this year.

All this raises the question, however, of why Obama chose to make a major climate speech – one in which he mentions our nation's "great interest" in protecting the Arctic region, no less – just a few days after approving a new round of drilling in the Arctic.

Perhaps administration officials saw this as a way to mute push-back from climate deniers in Congress and on Fox News. Or perhaps it was nothing more than a barely-disguised pay-back to Big Oil. Whatever the reason, it dulled the power of his speech and raised questions about the gulf between talk and action. After all, if burning carbon is a threat to national security, why are we aiding and abetting the enemy?