Climate Change Series: Global Warming A Threat To National Security

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As Congress continues to shuffle its feet on climate change, other arms of the government are taking action.

In recent years the Pentagon has moved swiftly to debate how climate change affects U.S. national security policy — and how to meet the challenges of operating in what is literally a "new environment.”

As director of the Navy's 2009 task force on climate change, David Titley was at the center of those debates.

Originally a skeptic of climate change, Titley outlines how dealing with the consequences of climate change is rapidly reshaping the priorities of the U.S. military.

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David Titley is a rear admiral, U.S. Navy – Retired, former chief oceanographer for the Navy and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society. The views expressed here are his own.

It's all about the water.

Okay, it's partly about food and energy, too. But from a national security perspective, climate change is all about the water: where it is or isn't, how much or how little there is, how quickly it changes from one state (e.g., solid ice to liquid water) to another.

Because of the effects of climate change in the Arctic, for the first time in 500 years we're opening a new ocean to navigation. The last guy who did that was Christopher Columbus.

Until 2005, the Arctic Polar ice cap consisted mostly of multi-year ice — ice that had formed two or more years before the date of measurement and was generally 2 to 4 meters (6.6 to 13 feet) thick and much harder to break through than first-year ice. Since 2007, most Arctic ice is now less than a year old and less than one meter thick. Climate scientists now expect that by 2030 much of the Arctic Ocean will be free of ice several months a year, opening it for commercial navigation just as the Baltic Sea is now.

The opening of the Arctic is the most immediate national security challenge presented by climate change. Except for submarines, the U.S. Navy has not operated widely on the surface of the Arctic Ocean; neither has anyone else. The Arctic is poorly charted and therefore dangerous to navigation. There's very little infrastructure and it's an extremely harsh operating environment.

The opening of the Arctic is the most immediate national security challenge presented by climate change.

Will the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska start to take on the characteristics of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which much of the world's oil passes, or the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans? Will it become a global hot spot for international tensions? As the Navy increasingly patrols the Arctic Ocean, what happens to our ability to patrol the western Pacific?

The Navy's strategic objectives for the Arctic are that it remains a "safe, stable and secure" region. It's a hopeful sign that all other Arctic nations, including Russia, have similar objectives. Because we all have similar national self-interests, there's a greater likelihood of peacefully negotiating the challenges presented by the fastest changing environment in the world.

When I was in the Navy, we tried to strip away the emotions associated with climate change as a political issue. It's a change, and just like changing demographics, political regimes and economic conditions, we need to deal with it. If we don't, we're putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage — and the United States military never wants to be at a competitive disadvantage.

The Department of Defense plans for everything, and particularly for potential changes in "the battlespace," the geography in which we operate. With global sea levels projected to rise anywhere from 20 centimeters (8 inches) to 2 meters (6.6 feet) this century as a consequence of climate change, that's a change we have to account for and plan for.

Since the Navy operates at sea level, as levels rise, each one of our bases is affected. So too are the installations and the surrounding communities on which they rely for food, housing, goods and services. As a nation, we're just beginning to consider the economic consequences of rebuilding that entire infrastructure.

Winston Churchill is believed to have said, "Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

The "right thing" with respect to climate change is to undertake a sustained effort to minimize impact on ourselves and other nations. We may not have exhausted all other possibilities yet, but I think we're close.


For further reading on this topic, Admiral Titley recommends:

This program aired on February 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.