Report Calls Global Warming 'Serious National Security Threat'

Global climate change presents a serious national security threat that could affect Americans at home, impact U.S. military operations and heighten global tensions, top retired military leaders warn in a new report released on April 16.

The report, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," explores ways projected climate change is a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions of the world, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states -- the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

The CNA Corp., a think tank, brought together 11 retired four-star and three-star admirals and generals to provide advice, expertise and perspective on the impact of climate change on national security. CNA writers and researchers compiled the report under the board's direction and review. 

The military advisory board members come from all branches of the armed services. The board includes a former Army chief of staff, commanders-in-chiefs of U.S. forces in global regions and experts in planning, logistics, underwater operations and oceanography. One member also served as U.S. ambassador to China.

"Climate change is a national security issue," said retired General. Gordon R. Sullivan, chairman of the Military Advisory Board and former Army chief of staff. "We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world."

"People are saying they want to be perfectly convinced about climate science projections," he said. "But speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield."

Military advisory board members said they remain optimistic that climate change challenges can be managed to reduce future risks. The first step recommended in the study is for the national intelligence community to include comprehensive assessments of climate change in future security plans, just as agencies now take into account traditional but uncertain threats.

As part of its five specific recommendations for action, the military advisory board stated that "the path to mitigating the worst security consequences of climate change involves reducing global greenhouse gas emissions."

"There is a relationship between carbon emissions and our national security," Sullivan said recently. "I think that the evidence is there that would suggest that we have to start paying attention."

Carbon emissions are clearly part of the problem," he added. "We will pay for this one way or another," stated retired Marine Corps General Anthony C. Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. "We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we'll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll."

The report describes national security implications of climate change in regions of the world.


The report states that "Tensions may rise as immigration from Africa and the Middle East -- exacerbated by climate change -- places additional social and economic pressures on countries. Some of America's strongest allies may be distracted as they struggle to protect their own borders. Such an inward focus may make it more difficult to build international coalitions, or engage in exercises to ensure readiness."

"Europe will be focused on its own borders," retired Admiral Donald L. Pilling, vice chief of naval operations, said in the report. "There is potential for fracturing some very strong alliances based on migrations and the lack of control over borders."


The report focuses on the ways in which climate change can contribute to shortages of food, drinking water and farmland, adding strain in a region that is already the source of 30 percent of the world's refugees. It states: "Such changes will add significantly to existing tensions and can facilitate weakened governance, economic collapses, massive human migrations, and potential conflicts."

Middle East

Noting this is the region of the world in which the United States is most engaged militarily, the report states that "water resources are a critical issue ... and will become even more critical ... Competition for increasingly scarce resources may exacerbate the level of conflict."

Latin America

The report states: "Rising sea levels will threaten all coastal nations. Caribbean nations are especially vulnerable in this regard, with the combination of rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity potentially devastating to some island nations ... and a likely increase in immigration from neighbor states." In addition the report finds that loss of glaciers "will strain water supply in several areas, particularly Peru and Venezuela."


The report finds that many factors may affect the continent. Potential sea level rise would have a severe impact with almost 40 percent of Asia's population of nearly 4 billion living within 45 miles of coastlines. In addition, the reduced availability of farmland and drinking water and the increased spread of infectious disease would destabilize the region.

One Military Advisory Board member, retired Navy Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, views Asia from two perspectives, having been commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific and later U.S. ambassador to China. He suggested, as the full report does, that the United States should work with key international partners, including China, one of the leading emitters of atmospheric carbon.

"On the issue of carbon emissions, it doesn't help us to solve our problem if China doesn't solve theirs. And that means we need to engage with them on many fronts," Prueher stated in the report. "Not talking to the Chinese is not an option."

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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