Earth Day: Treat Climate Change Like a Security Threat

What if someone told you war isn't real and it's just a conspiracy for the Armed Forces and defense contractors to get rich?

Swap out the word "war" for "climate change" in the first sentence and you have the essence of my congressional colleagues' claim that climate change is just a left-wing conspiracy meant to generate funds for environmentalists and their pet projects. Despite near scientific consensus, most conservatives contend climate change is hypothetical hogwash.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that the best way to limit the damage is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to start proactively planning for the impacts, which will include more regional conflicts over water and other resources and increased poverty throughout the world. In its latest report on mitigating the effects of climate change, which was released last week, the IPCC says that it is not too late to limit warming to tolerable levels -- but that to do so, the world must act now.

Many dismiss the IPCC as alarmist at best, and at worst liars. But the Department of Defense, hardly a reactionary body, has voiced similar concerns about the security threats posed by climate change for years. Just last month, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III said that unrest related to climate change "is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about."

What if we prepare for defense threats the same way we prepare for -- or rather, not prepare for -- climate change?

Here are a couple of quotes by deniers who want us to do nothing uttered by some of my colleagues here in Congress:

Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR-02): "I am not convinced that the problem of global warming is what the scientists say it is. Particularly in light of the recent research, that demonstrates that there are a lot of shenanigans going on with the data."

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA-50): "Nobody really knows the cause. The Earth cools, the Earth warms ... It could be caused by carbon dioxide or methane. Maybe we should kill the cows to stop the methane, or stop breathing to stop the CO2 ... Thousands of people die every year of cold, so if we had global warming it would save lives ... We ought to look out for people. The Earth can take care of itself."

This absurd attitude pervades the GOP side of the aisle but imagine if Congress treated the potential for war in the same manner. No one, on any part of the political spectrum, would advocate that we treat the defense of our nation in such a dangerous and cavalier manner. That is why our lack of preparation for climate change -- and the security threats it poses -- is equally dangerous. If friendly nations such as Kiribati and Bangladesh were attacked by Russia or Iran, we would be on high alert, doing everything we can to help them resist the invading forces. But when the same nations are threatened with destruction, economic ruin, and even (in the case of Kiribati) total annihilation from rising sea levels, we do nothing.

We must start to prepare for a warming world in the same way that we prepare for the possibility of terrorism -- by making sure our infrastructure is secure and by working to minimize threats as much as possible. My district in San Francisco and the Peninsula is severely threatened by sea level rise, with more than 110,000 people, $24 billion in property, and a major international airport at risk. That's why I organized the "Meeting the Challenges of Sea Level Rise in San Mateo County" conference last December, and why I am planning a follow-up conference this year. As General Douglas MacArthur said, "Preparedness is the key to success and victory."

The Pentagon calls the effects of climate change -- drought, floods, fires, and food scarcity -- "...threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions -- conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

We must start to treat climate change as what it is -- a threat to United States security. And we must not delay. As Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of the Central Command, wrote, "We will pay for this one way or another. 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."

Every day is Earth Day and I vote we start investing in a secure climate future right now.