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Whom should we believe when it comes to national security: military experts preparing for future dangers, or politicians preparing for their next election?

David Barnhill


Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, but it deserves consideration. When it comes to global warming, national security has taken a back seat to ideology and campaign contributions.

There is little doubt, outside of Washington, D.C., about the causes of climate change. That the planet is getting warmer due to human activity is confirmed by 97 percent of climate scientists and nearly 200 scientific academies around the world. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science has noted, science is as certain of the reality of human-caused climate disruption as it is of the link between smoking and cancer.

But an alternate reality has been promulgated by fossil fuel interests and free-market fundamentalists. These “merchants of doubt” have sought to create distrust in climate science. The tobacco industry ran a similar campaign successfully for decades.

Now we have an EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who wants a public “debate” on the issue. This is like the head of the American Medical Association calling for a debate on whether smoking causes cancer.

Such efforts are working. In a recent poll, less than a quarter of Americans reported being “very worried” about global warming.

But the U.S. military is very worried, and has been for years.

In 2007, when George W. Bush was president, a military board produced the report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. It affirmed that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability ... and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States.”

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report by the Department of Defense termed global warming “an accelerant of instability or conflict.” Dozens of other reports have expounded on this threat.

David Titley, a retired rear admiral who has a Ph.D. in meteorology, spoke for many in the military when he wrote in 2014: “The climate is changing. We can do something about it. For the sake of our nation and the world, we must act.”

The last five secretaries of defense, starting with Bush’s Robert Gates, have urged government action on global warming. In testimony to Congress in 2017, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called climate change “a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response.”

Military strategists, unlike politicians, can’t afford to play ideological games when it comes to national security. They must focus on how climate disruption is creating political destabilization globally and straining the military’s ability to respond to crises.

But Republicans in Congress are not being helpful. In the summer of 2017, they tried to pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have prevented the Defense Department from studying the security impacts of climate disruption. Fortunately, there were enough Republicans who cared about national security to join Democrats in voting against it.

Trump, however, remains incalcitrant. His new National Security Strategy, released in December, ignores the defense experts and avoids any mention of global warming as a national security concern. Trump is dismissing a threat that the military considers to be severe.

So there are two more questions: What politicians do you want in office making decisions about national security? And where does your representative in Congress stand?

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David Barnhill is emeritus director of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.


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