The Pentagon & Climate Change: How Deniers Put National Security at Risk
Any official who draws a link between climate change and national security is guaranteed a rabid reaction from right-wingers. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently called climate change “a threat multiplier” that “has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism.” In response, The Wall Street Journal editorial page blasted Hagel as a delusional tree-hugger: “Americans who might die at the hands of the Islamic State won’t care that Mr. Hagel is mobilizing against melting glaciers.” In a speech in Jakarta last year — a city of almost 30 million that is sinking rapidly — Secretary of State John Kerry called climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” and likened it to terrorism, epidemics and poverty. McCain immediately dismissed Kerry’s concerns and accused him of “butterflying around the world, saying all kinds of things”; former Republican leader Newt Gingrich tweeted, “Every American who cares about national security must demand Kerry’s resignation. A delusional secretary of state is dangerous to our safety.”
Before climate change became taboo for Republicans, it was possible for even conservative politicians to have rational discussions about the subject. In 2003, under Donald Rumsfeld, former President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, the Pentagon published a report titled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” Commissioned by Andrew Marshall, who is sometimes jokingly referred to within the Pentagon as Yoda — and who was a favorite of Rumsfeld’s — the report warned that threats to global stability posed by rapid warming vastly eclipse that of terrorism. Some of the climate science in the report was flawed, but the broader conclusions were not. “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,” the report stated. “Once again, warfare would define human life.”
Even McCain, now firmly in the denial camp, didn’t hesitate to draw the connection between climate change and national security. “If the scientists are right and temperatures continue to rise,” he said on the Senate floor in 2007, “we could face environmental, economic and national-security consequences far beyond our ability to imagine.”
This kind of talk vanished from the party after 2008, when the GOP turned into a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Since then, Republicans have worked hard to undermine any connection between climate and national security. Case in point: In 2009, then-CIA director Leon Panetta quietly started the Center on Climate Change and National Security. It was a straightforward attempt by the intelligence community to gather a better understanding of the changes to come. Among other things, the Center funded a major study of the relationships between climate change and social stress, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most respected scientific organizations in the country. Climate deniers in Congress didn’t like it, especially Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Big Coal state. By the time the report was completed, Panetta had left the CIA and his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, let it wither. “We felt constant pressure to water down our conclusions,” says one of the co-authors of the National Academy report. The day the report was released, the press conference was suddenly canceled, and the report was buried. A few weeks later, the Center on Climate Change and National Security was disbanded.
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