By Dylan Adler
In the Democratic presidential primary debate on Nov. 14, CBS’s John Dickerson asked U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, “In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” Senator Sanders quickly replied “Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism…you’re going to see countries all over the world…struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops…you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”
The senator’s answer was met with a wide range of responses. Environmentalists praised his response and the attention he gave to climate change. Some Republicans called his statement absurd, and claimed Sanders was combining two unrelated issues. While Sanders’ response has brought this into the national spotlight, the idea of climate change posing a national security threat is nothing new.
Officials at different levels of the United States Government have already been incorporating climate change into their analysis of national security threats. In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, in a speech in Indonesia, stated that climate change was a global threat of the same magnitude as terrorism, epidemics and weapons of mass destruction.
“The reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them,” Kerry said.
A 2014 Department of Defense report used the term “threat multiplier” to describe climate change. The report explained climate change has “the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today—from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”
In February of this year, the White House acknowledged the link between climate change and national security. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” says a statement released from the White House.
This followed President Obama’s release of his 2015 national security strategy. In the strategy, the president ranked climate change among the top threats to the United States’ security. In a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in May, Obama stated, “Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune. So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.”
In May, the White House released a report titled “The National Security Implications of a Changing Climate.” The report summarized positions from a variety of reports from the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. The White House report explains that climate change increases the frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather events. These weather events can aggravate existing stressors in a region by uprooting people’s lives, increasing poverty and causing environmental degradation. These can lead to economic and political instability, which have dangerous national security implications.
These government organizations base their ideas on research that has been done on the relationship between climate change and regional instability. Criminology studies have shown that weather patterns can influence the amount of criminal activity, and this relationship has been explored in computer models. It is well established that climate change will lead to higher temperatures, extreme weather events and changing levels of rainfall. These have been modeled to show an increase in personal strain, societal unrest and opportunities for conflict, all of which increase crime levels.
In fact, research has been conducted into how drought contributed to the Syrian civil war. The severe drought lasted for five years, devastated Syrian farming, and drove an estimated one million people off their land and into urban slums. It is projected to have pushed 800,000 Syrians into extreme poverty. This income gap is one of the main drivers of the Syrian revolt. A 2015 paper examined the relationship between drought and instability in Syria. It explained that the drought, combined with unsustainable farming practices and the inability of the government to address the displaced population, was a significant factor leading to the conflict.
While climate change cannot be proven to have caused the Syrian drought, it is well established that climate change leads to an increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events. The same 2015 paper concluded that, although multiyear droughts occur periodically in Syria, recent trends of low precipitation in the region are likely due to warming global temperatures. The nonprofit policy research organization the Center for Climate and Security came to the same conclusion. Co-founder Francesco Femia explains, “We can’t say climate change caused the civil war. But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.”
Finally, reconsider Sander’s answer that climate change is the greatest threat to national security. Climate change is clearly linked to the severity of the Syrian drought, which contributed to the civil war, which created a national security threat. However, declaring climate change the largest national security threat is misleading because it, by itself, does not instigate violence. Climate change is a “threat multiplier,” and worsens the greatest national security threats.
After the Paris attacks, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said, “There are a variety of impacts that we’re feeling from a changing climate, and we need to stop those impacts from escalating … one of those is instability. … So it is a national security issue for us.”
Climate change’s indirect effects make it a security issue. Sanders’ answer highlights the broad range of impacts climate change has on the world. While the most severe effects of climate change will certainly be caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather, the exaggeration of pre-existing threats cannot be overlooked.
Dylan Adler is a student in the Masters of Public Administration-Environmental Science and Policy program and an intern at the Columbia Climate Center.