National Security Network

Addressing American Energy, Security, and the Climate

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Report 8 June 2010

Energy Energy Energy energy security


Against the backdrop of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the United States Senate is ramping up for debate on energy and climate change legislation.  As legislators consider different approaches to forging a new energy policy, they should keep in mind the words of former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner (R-VA) who said that "Climate change, national security and energy dependence are interrelated global challenges."  In addition to the environmental disaster spreading across the gulf, there are a multitude of national security concerns that arise from America's fossil fuel dependency and the effects of climate change.  Countless bipartisan and nonpartisan military and national security leaders have warned about such circumstances for years.  But despite this, opponents of a clean energy future for the United States continue to delay, distract, and undermine attempts to address this issue.  In particular, extreme conservative politicians willfully ignore the real challenges posed to American security by climate change, preferring instead to politicize and trivialize the national security impacts of such a future.  It is time for the cheap political posturing on this serious national security issue to end, as one retired general clearly put it: "Military leaders know this isn't about polar bears and ice caps, it's about international stability and national security."

BP disaster demonstrates urgency of shifting away from oil and other fossil fuels, as a comprehensive approach is needed. The environmental disaster in the Gulf caused by BP, which likely will have massive consequences for our environment, confirms the need for America to chart a new national energy policy.  As President Obama said last week, "If we refuse to take into account the full cost of our fossil fuel addiction - if we don't factor in the environmental costs and national security costs and true economic costs - we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future." The unfolding catastrophe has translated into new momentum to pass energy legislation in the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately there have been indications that the legislation under consideration by Senate leadership would separate climate change measures from the potential energy proposals. 

As the Senate considers energy legislation, it must recognize that energy and climate change are intertwined national security challenges that should be addressed jointly.  A recent report from the Pew Project and retired Senator John Warner (R-VA), former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Navy Secretary, finds that "Climate change, national security and energy dependence are interrelated global challenges. U.S. dependence on foreign sources of energy constitutes a serious threat-militarily, diplomatically and economically. And climate change is expected to act as a ‘threat multiplier,' stoking instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world and, in turn, threatening America's security." Similarly, in a statement for Operation Free expressing support for climate and energy legislation, Lt. General John G. Castellaw (U.S. Army, Retired) said "This isn't an environmental issue, this is a security issue. Our strategic interests, and therefore our national security and the safety of Americans, are threatened by climate change and our continuing dependence on oil. Military leaders know this isn't about polar bears and ice caps, it's about international stability and national security." [President Obama, via the Washington Post, 6/3/10. Politico, 6/7/10. Lt. General John G. Castellaw (U.S. Army, Retired), via Climate Progress, 5/12/10. Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, 4/20/10]

Risks to American national security from climate change and energy insecurity are real.  While America is watching the disastrous effects of our dependence on oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico, there are additional impacts to our national security caused by energy security and climate change.  A recent letter from 33 retired generals and admirals reads:  "America's billion-dollar-a-day dependence on oil makes us vulnerable to unstable and unfriendly regimes. A substantial amount of that oil money ends up in the hands of terrorists. Consequently, our military is forced to operate in hostile territory, and our troops are attacked by terrorists funded by U.S. oil dollars, while rogue regimes profit off of our dependence. As long as the American public is beholden to global energy prices, we will be at the mercy of these rogue regimes. Taking control of our energy future means preventing future conflicts around the world and protecting Americans here at home."

Similarly, while the security effects of climate change may seem far off, they are not.  It would be incorrect to draw a direct link between climate change and any single conflict, however, countless security analysts have said that it can act as a "threat multiplier" for conflict.   As Senator John Kerry (D-MA) writes in a recent op-ed, "Scientists now warn the Himalayan glaciers, which supply fresh water to a billion people in India and Pakistan, will face severe impacts from climate change. India's rivers are not only vital to its agriculture but also critical to its religious practice. Pakistan, for its part, depends on irrigated farming to avoid famine.  At a moment when our government is scrambling to ratchet down tensions across that strategically vital region, climate change could work powerfully in the opposite direction. Failure to tackle climate change risks much more than a ravaged environment: It risks a much more dangerous world and a gravely threatened America."  Michael Werz, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress outlines a particularly dark scenario, "Islamist rebels threaten the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, where Al Qaeda Maghreb's presence has steadily grown in recent years. Resource allocation policies, drought, and water shortages are also factors within migration hubs like Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, which all face their own environmental challenges.  The European Union is keeping a close eye on these developments and how they could be affected by climate change. For example, the E.U. report, ‘Climate Change and International Security,' discusses mass migration and political destabilization that ‘puts the multilateral system at risk.' While this is a dark assessment, it appropriately calls attention to the issue."

In addition, Thomas Kean, former chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and Gary Hart, co-chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, recently outline what this means for U.S. national security: "Military planners are also taking these into account in their efforts...  We understand it can be difficult to feel urgency about long-range national security threats spotted by military and intelligence analysts - though it is vitally important to do so. It may be easier, then, to see the danger of not dealing with the economic implications of climate change."  And the Pew Report with Sen. Warner states that, "Such effects also could increase U.S. military missions as troops are called on for support domestically and internationally."  [John Kerry, 5/20/10.  Foreign Policy, 6/7/10. Thomas Kean and Gary Hart, 5/10/10. Truman Project Letter, 4/29/10. Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, 4/20/10]

Despite the twin challenges posed by energy insecurity and climate change, extreme conservatives keep their collective heads in the sand. Rather than engage constructively in efforts to deal with the dual problems of climate change and oil dependence, extreme conservatives have elected to be willfully ignorant.  California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina recently put out an ad attacking Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) for correctly labeling climate change a national security threat, sarcastically saying that "Barbara Boxer is worried about the weather."  This mocking comes from Fiorina despite her past statements in support of a cap and trade plan when it was proposed by then Presidential Candidate John McCain back in 2008.  Fiorina's position is consistent with those of other conservatives who have chosen to neglect advice from national security and military experts. For example, last year Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, openly mocked the entire concept of climate change, saying:  "We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I am using my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process. Greenland, which is now covered in ice, it was once called Greenland for a reason, right? Iceland, which is now green. Oh I love this. Like we know what this planet is all about. How long have we been here? How long? No very long." And in terms of the progress on climate change and energy security, Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) preferred to think small and limited, saying, "I think rather than try to hit a grand slam home run, I'd like to work with Senator Kerry and others to try to do -- you know, hit some singles..." [Carly Fiorina, 6/2/10. PERI & CAP Report, via Climate Progress, 6/18/09. Carly Fiorina, 9/03/08 Michael Steele via NY Times, 3/20/09 John Cornyn, 6/6/10]

What We're Reading

With a vote on new sanctions against Iran only days away, the Obama administration is making the case to members of the United Nations Security Council that Iran has revived elements of its program to design nuclear weapons.

Insurgents killed 12 NATO soldiers yesterday, sevent of them Americans, making it the worst single day for the foreign forces operating in Afghanistan in more than seven months.

Russian prosecutors say four soldiers have been charged with stealing the credit cards of a passenger killed when the Polish president's plane crashed in Russia in April.

Iran has used a succession of stratagems - changing not just ships' flags and names but their owners, operators and managers, too - to stay one step ahead of sanctions.

The Israeli military has set up an internal team of experts to examine last week's deadly commando raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The 22-year-old army intelligence specialist accused of leaking a classified video to the whistleblower site was turned in by a notorious hacker.

The Global Peace Index says the global financial crisis has made the world less peaceful by fueling crime and civil unrest, but the risk of outright armed conflict appears to be falling.

Police discovered 55 bodies in an abandoned mine in Mexico suspected of being used by drug gangs as a dumping ground for their victims.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleaded with Latin American countries to welcome Honduras back into the Organization of American States, a year after the country's left-leaning president was ousted in a coup.

Foreign fighters trained in Afghanistan are gaining influence inside Somalia's al-Shabab militia.

Commentary of the Day

Steven Hill writes that, when it comes to energy, Europeans have discovered what a previous generation of American leaders once knew: that investment in infrastructure pays dividends in multiple ways that pave the way for the future.

Charles Kupchan argues that closing off dialogue with Iran would be a precipitous and dangerous mistake, saying even fierce adversaries can settle their differences through negotiation.

Matt Duss explores the military and nuclear partnership between Israel and apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s and considers what that means for Israel today.