Our Hot Mess: Climate change a threat to national security

When we think of the impacts of climate change, it is easy to immediately picture the unwashed-for-seven-days-and-counting hippie tied to a tree, protesting, or the scientists studying ice cores and monotonically giving data reports. And of course, as I have mentioned in articles prior, no climate change thought bubble is complete without the infamous polar bear alone on an ever-shrinking dollop of ice. However, these stereotypical images allow a misunderstanding to take place, allowing us to ignore other more important connections to associate climate change with. National security, though rarely correlated, is a vital piece of the climate change spider web.

Now I have obviously discussed the more obvious ramifications of climate change in previous OHM installments, and those are national threats not to be overlooked. But have you ever thought about our military bases? Our international relations? Our naval Arctic road map? It will probably surprise you that the Pentagon rates climate change as one of the top national threats in its 2014 quadrennial defense review. I’m here to tell you why.

Our Department of Defense (DOD) has a whopping 7600 bases worldwide, in 40 foreign countries and all 50 states. All of these - some more than others - are subject to be affected by our changing world because of the following ways: hotter temperatures, changes in precipitation, rising sea levels, increasing storm frequency and intensity, and changes to the ocean’s chemistry and temperature. One base in particular is a lake bed used as an emergency runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It was inundated by floods and didn't dry out completely for 8 months. Another slightly more used base is known as Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia: the most important and largest American naval base. It houses the Navy’s largest carriers and amphibious warships, making the base a vital part of our nation’s security. And terrifyingly: The average height is one meter above sea level. Predicted to be underwater by the end of the century.

To add salt to the freshwater “wound,” climate change is stirring up issues like uprisings and wars. Seemingly unrelated but fairly simple when broken down, I will use The Great Recession as an example. Money is tight, prices go up, and jobs get lost. Parents are trying to provide basic necessities for their families - food, clothing, water, heat, transportation - while under the significant stress of worrying about where the next safe haven of a check will come from. Now relate that situation with that in Syria. I know they’re entirely different, but they have the same theme of turmoil in the household, not knowing when things will be okay.That makes people scared, and rightfully so; their worlds get turned upside down and all around and start melting. And what happens when people get scared? They start acting irrationally and panicking and behaving as though they’ve got nothing to lose. All of this in Syria adds up to a rather eerie timeline, as I have pictured below. 
Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force
Rising global temperatures started drying up the Khabur River, which was depended on for their self-sufficient wheat production and overall water needs. Drought became more severe. War began. Food and water became scarce. It really should not have been a surprise that the uprising began in the first place. Acting out is a natural reaction to the world going crazy. Maybe not a good one, but a natural one. It is also only logical to admit the pattern presenting itself: Increased stress on the environment increases stress in our lives and helps activate conflict among stressed individuals. I am by no means insinuating the Syrian uprising was solely caused by environmental stress; it is simply an unignorable correlation between the two.

Next we have a little area known as the Arctic, the place that “is warming twice as fast as other parts of the planet, which has ramifications for global security, climate, commerce, and trade," said Rick Spinrad, chief scientist for NOAA. In 2012, Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low in recorded history, 1.3 million square miles. It seems like a pretty large space, but the comparison can be seen much easier in the image below comparing the 30-year sea ice minimum average with the 2012 historical minimum (inside the red line). This lack of ice leads to increased fishing, tourism, and resource extraction, all getting in the way of our Navy’s key path through the waters. Any endeavor will also have to overcome environmental obstacles in the coming decades. With less sea ice covering the oceans, more heat can be absorbed from the sun, increasing the temperature contrast between warm ice-free seas in the summer and cold icy seas in the autumn. This could lead to more frequent and more intense Arctic cyclones as well as increased amounts of fog, both detrimental to our ships traveling the waters. The rising temperatures melting permafrost in the Arctic areas have left large holes where the permafrost used to be - in areas troops used to conduct air drop and parachute drills.

Those topics are simply the ones you don’t think about normally. Of course there are the money aspects - the outrageously high costs of undoing climate change destruction - and the droughts and lack of food production in the US border. But overall, walk away with this: Climate change is a threat-multiplier in the eyes of our military and should be in the eyes of the civilians.

--Elke Arnesen, LSNews.org Columnist

Edited: BP

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