The Slatest

Obama Makes Strongest Case Yet for Combating National Security Threat of Climate Change

Climate change is already blurring security risks worldwide. On that basis, Obama made the case for action at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on May 20, 2015.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Obama took his sharpest jab yet on Wednesday against politicians who deny human influence on climate change, sending them this message: You’re a threat to national security.

Speaking at the United States Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London, Connecticut, Obama made climate change the focus of his remarks, calling the country’s failure to act to combat global warming a “dereliction of duty.” In association with the speech, the White House also released an 11-page report summarizing the government’s findings and initiatives on national security and climate change.

In his speech, Obama said that he anticipates “a rise in climate change refugees” and “increased competition for resources” over the coming decades. To these threats, Obama said, “I guarantee the Coast Guard will have to respond … you need to be ready.”

There’s evidence that this is already playing out in especially sensitive parts of the world. Obama’s speech linked climate stress to the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the civil war in Syria, with severe drought and associated food shortages seen by experts as an instigator of each conflict. A recent study by the risk analysis firm Maplecroft identified 32 countries where climate change could “amplify” civil unrest, including China, India, Pakistan, Yemen, and the Philippines.

The Pentagon now refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier.” For these reasons, Obama concluded that global warming “cannot be subject to the usual politics.” The effects of climate change we’ve already seen have been enough to convert at least one former military commander from climate change denier to climate advocate.

And responding to the president’s speech, retired military commanders issued a call for Congress to invest more resources in preparing for increasing climate-related security risks. Earlier this year House Republicans proposed a cut in the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency budgets related to climate and security.

Obama’s emphasis on the immediate national security and public health implications of climate change is part of his administration’s ongoing strategy of broadening the case for climate action beyond the comparatively far-off threats of sea level rise and species loss. He also mentioned the link between climate and security in this year’s State of the Union address and in an Earth Day speech in the Everglades. In a February interview with Vox, the president pointed toward the overwhelming evidence that the risk of climate change outweighs terrorism.

Still, it’s not totally clear how effective the new emphasis on national security is for changing hearts and minds in Congress toward broad-based climate action. For one, the Obama administration is still seemingly embracing its “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, recently reauthorizing Shell’s request to drill for oil in the geopolitically sensitive Arctic, a move that scientists say is incompatible with keeping climate change at “safe” levels. As long as the Obama administration attempts to have it both ways on climate change and energy policy, you can expect Republicans will continue their own business-as-usual path of foot-dragging.