Obama Warns Climate Change Presents an "Immediate Risk" to National Security

Obama Warns Climate Change Presents an "Immediate Risk" to National Security

In a commencement address Wednesday at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, President Barack Obama cast climate change as an emerging security threat that "cuts to the very core" of the challenges facing its graduating Class of 2015.

"Here at the academy, climate change — understanding the science and consequences — is part of the curriculum and rightly so, because it will affect everything that you do in your careers," Obama said, before turning his attention to the "threat multiplier" that more frequent floods, worsening droughts, and food shortages could have on an already fragile global order.

"Around the world, climate change increases the risk of instability and conflict," Obama said. "Rising seas are already swallowing low lying-lands from Bangladesh to Pacific islands, forcing people from their homes. Caribbean islands and Central American coasts are vulnerable, as well. Globally, we could see a rise in climate change refugees."

The coming storm: Obama cited a 2014 report from the Defense Department, which warned disruptions in climate norms "could undermine already fragile governments that are unable to respond effectively or challenge currently stable governments," then pointed to Syria and Nigeria as examples of countries whose pre-existing divisions were sharpened by tensions over diminishing natural resources.

The United Nations warned in early March that "changes in fundamental hydrology are likely to cause new kinds of conflict, and it can be expected that both water scarcity and flooding will become major trans-boundary water issues."

The apparatus and industry of domestic military operations are already feeling the effects, according to the Pentagon's assessment.

"Climate change poses a threat to the readiness of our forces," Obama said. "Around Norfolk [Virginia], high tides and storms increasingly flood parts of our Navy base and an airbase. In Alaska, thawing permafrost is damaging military facilities. Out West, deeper droughts and longer wildfires could threaten training areas our troops depend on."

To the doubters and deniers on Capitol Hill, Obama issued a blunt rebuke.

"There are folks who will equivocate, they'll say, 'You know, I'm not a scientist.' Well, I'm not either," he said. "But the best scientists in the world know that climate change is happening."

An opportunity ahead: Wednesday's speech marks the latest in a series of steps the White House has pursued to coalesce support around its climate change initiatives. In November 2014, Obama announced a deal with the Chinese government to slow down and eventually reverse both countries' carbon emissions over the coming 10 to 15 years. A more comprehensive agreement will be on the table when dozens of countries gather in Paris for a United Nations-sponsored climate summit later this year.

With environmental activists already at their side, the White House is hoping this new appeal — selling climate change as a national security threat — will grab the attention and support of interests traditionally indifferent or hostile to the cause.