Is Climate Change a Threat to National Security?

paris-peace-signCOP21 began Monday with a moment of silence for victims of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, and the tragedy served as a touchstone for world leaders urging unity and action. Nearly every speaker at the daylong Leaders Event expressed condolences for the Paris attacks, and some, including the Prince of Wales who opened the event, highlighted the connection between climate change and national security.

In his speech, President Obama declared “what greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it.” Later, in a press briefing room at COP21, President Obama doubled down on this sentiment stating that “in some ways, [climate change] is akin to the problem of terrorism and ISIL.” Both threats, President Obama said, require a long, sustained effort by the United States to assess and neutralize them.

French Foreign Minister and COP21 President Laurent Fabius has called climate change “a threat to policepeace,” describing a world where floods, desertification, and droughts will intensify conflicts over
ever-scarcer resources and spark a massive wave of environmental refugees. “Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”

Also vocal on this issue is presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who stated publicly during the First Democratic Presidential Debate that climate change is the single greatest threat to the U.S.’s national security. Understandably, debate moderators revisited this question just one day after the Paris attacks during the second debate on November 14, asking Senator Sanders if he stood by his previous statement in light of the growing security threat from ISIS. “Absolutely,” said Sanders. “In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.” Like Fabius, he explained that climate change impacts will increase international conflicts as people struggle over limited amounts of water and land to grow their crops.

Criticizing this correlation to terrorism, an Op-Ed published in the New York Times soon after the Paris attacks called out climate change advocates, among others, and asked incredulously, “must we instantly bootstrap obliquely related agendas and utterly unconnected grievances to the carnage in Paris, responding to it with an unsavory opportunism instead of a respectful grief?”

However, recent reports suggest that this correlation is warranted. In July, a report by the U.S. Defense Department called climate change an “urgent and growing threat” to national security, and this October NATO’s parliament demanded stronger action by member states to tackle a warming planet. The repeated discussion of the nexus between climate change and national security Monday makes clear that this is no longer a political question – it’s a fact.

Drought