A few days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Norfolk, Virginia. A place where -- for centuries -- America’s fighting men and women have prepared for the missions of defense of our country and for the advancement of our ideals. While there, I addressed a group of students, faculty, members of our military, and the public at Old Dominion University. I spoke about a topic that is of critical importance to me, to our country, and to the world: climate change.
I am an environmentalist. I have been my whole life.
I was at the second UN Earth Summit, held in Rio way back in 1992. Even then, the call for action on pollution and clean energy was broad based, coming not only from environmental activists, but also from scientists and private sector entrepreneurs. And today Americans advocating action on climate change come from all walks of life-- and both sides of the aisle. The list includes economists like former President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who called climate change “a crisis we cannot afford to ignore.” It includes diplomats like Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State George Shultz, who says that on climate change, “We have to be a leader.”
Decades of science tell us beyond any reasonable doubt that human beings are directly causing and accelerating climate change, and that unless we take bold steps now to transition away from a carbon-based economy, we are facing irreversible damage to our habitat, infrastructure, food production, water supplies, sea levels, and potentially life itself.
I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment.
It is because -- by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world — climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and to the security and stability of countries everywhere.
Climate Change is Fueling Extreme Weather Events
You certainly don’t need to be a scientist to see that our climate is already changing.
The past decade was the hottest on record. The one before that was the second hottest on record. The one before that was the third hottest on record. Three decades in a row. Nineteen of the 20 warmest years in recorded history have occurred in the past two decades. And this year is on track to be the warmest of all.
In recent years, what we used to think of as extreme weather has started to become plain-old weather. In some places, the kind of flooding that happened every 500 years or so is now expected to happen every 25 years. And these kinds of weather events are expected to become more frequent and more intense as our planet warms, our glaciers melt, and our seas rise. This will have very real impacts on our communities, our economy, and our military, and will exacerbate the development challenges we already face. In other words, this is going to be like Mother Nature on steroids.
Climate Change is Undermining our Military Readiness
Local sea levels are rising twice as fast as the global average. What is causing most of this sea level rise is the one-two punch that is mandated by the laws of science: as ocean water warms, it expands. And, similarly, as the atmosphere warms, ice all over the world melts. We are seeing this dramatically in the Arctic -- from the glaciers of Alaska to the massive Ice Sheet of Greenland.
Members of the Norfolk Fire-Rescue team pull a man from his car who is stranded because of flooding in Norfolk, Virginia on October 4, 2015. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has projected that if the current trends hold, the sea in Norfolk could rise by five and a half feet or more by the end of this very century. [AP Photo]
When extreme weather leads to natural disasters and humanitarian suffering, our military responds bravely and with great skill, but it takes our troops away from work on other important missions.
Climate change is a security threat: it has a direct impact on military readiness.
If our military vehicles are immobile and unable to operate due to flooding, this affects our military readiness. Similarly, if the high risk of wildfires prevents our troops from training with live ammunition, it affects our military readiness. If the permafrost our Alaska bases are built on begins to thaw out and become less stable — this, too, affects our ability to respond to national security threats on the global stage.
The direct impact on our military’s ability to defend our nation is just the beginning of the peril that climate change could pose to our national security.
Climate Change is Exacerbating Conflicts Around the World
Around the world, we are already seeing how climate change is exacerbating problems that already exist. For example, climate change did not lead to the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, but the severe drought that country suffered -- and the government’s inability to cope with it -- helped create the political and economic volatility that the militants exploited to seize villages, butcher teachers, and kidnap hundreds of innocent school girls.
Similarly, it is not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria that country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil. I am not suggesting climate change was the primary reason for the crisis in Syria, but the drought that devastated communities across the country exacerbated the instability on the ground, and made a bad situation worse.
The bottom line is the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict -- especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress.
And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today -- economically, technologically, militarily -- in every way imaginable -- instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere. This kind of strife will not be contained by international borders.
We Must Do More to Prepare for the Impacts of Climate Change To Come
We have to do more to prepare for the impacts of climate change that we already know are coming our way.
President Obama has made climate change adaptation a key pillar of his Climate Action Plan, and all federal agencies are currently doing their part to help improve our nation’s resilience to climate impacts. I am pleased to announce that I will be convening a task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities.
Given the “threat-multiplier” effect we have already observed around the world, collaboration on climate risk assessment should be part-and-parcel of every one of our diplomatic relationships. That is the driving force behind the task force of senior government officials and outside experts I will be convening to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities.
If we can better identify the “red flags” of risk around the world, we can better target our diplomacy and development assistance to enable those nations to become more resilient, more secure, and less likely to fall into full-fledged wars or humanitarian crises.
There are many things we can do -- and are beginning to do -- to prepare for the changes before we are too late to stop them. The worst impacts are not yet inevitable. We still have time to transition to a global, clean energy economy, and put the world on a much safer, more sustainable path. If we let the opportunity to do so pass us by, it may be the primary thing our generation is remembered for.
American Leadership Will be Critical to Global Success
We in the United States cannot address climate change alone. This is a global challenge that we can only confront with a global solution. But American leadership is critical to global success.
Climate change is a challenge that President Obama has taken head on — and thanks to the bold policies that he has put in place, we are emitting less than we have in two decades.
The United States is emitting less than we have in two decades. We’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025; tripled wind power generation; and multiplied solar power generation 20 times over. [State Department Photo].
The United States is emitting less than we have in two decades. We’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025; tripled wind power generation; and multiplied solar power generation 20 times over.
As Secretary of State, I have made engaging the rest of the world in the fight against climate change a matter of highest diplomatic priority. At the heart of that fight is reaching an ambitious, durable, and inclusive agreement at the UN climate conference next month in Paris. That is our goal.
And today an effective global climate agreement is within reach. And the kind of agreement that we are working toward is one that will prove that the world’s leaders finally understand the scope of the challenge that we are up against. Most importantly, it will put us on a path toward a cleaner, healthier, and safer and more secure future.
Our collective failure to act faster and with greater boldness on climate change now may be the single most profound betrayal by one generation to the next in history.
We have to prevent that. It is not too late to curb emissions, limit the damage, and seize the environmental, the economic, and the security benefits of a cleaner, greener, energy future.
Putting the greater good above one’s personal interests must guide our collective efforts to address this global threat. It should not be a hard choice. We have a moral responsibility to protect the future of our nation and our world. That is our charge. We have to get it right. Not just for ourselves, but also for the generations who will follow in our footsteps.