Military Leaders Warn Climate Change is a National Security Threat

Sep 6, 2018

People listen as military and local leaders talk about climate change and its impact on national security at the Citadel in Charleston
Credit Victoria Hansen

Three years of back to back hurricanes and record floods have left many across the Lowcountry flood weary.  Now the height of hurricane season is here.  Scientists say climate change is to blame for increased flooding, creating more intense storms and rising sea levels.  But it’s not just coastal homeowners who are worried.  Some military leaders warn climate change is a threat to national security.

“I will tell you around the country and the world, most of our U.S. bases are impacted by climate change,” said Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney speaking at a conference on climate change and the military last month at the Citadel in Charleston.  The conference was put on in part by the Center for Climate and Security founded in 2011.  It’s advisory board is made up of senior military security leaders.

General Cheney heads up his own group, The American Security Project.  It evaluates all kinds of security threats and he says climate change is among them.  “I hate to be a chicken little here, but in 20 to 30 years this is going to be a severe problem,” he said.

A marine for more than 30 years, he worries about his beloved Parris Island where he once served as a commanding general.  He doesn’t believe the base  will close anytime soon, but thinks they will have to build a sea wall, much like Charleston is doing by raising its own lower battery wall by two and half feet along the harbor.

But it’s not just rising sea levels that concern him.  He says more days of extreme heat take a toll on national readiness because training has to be cut short on those so called, “black flag” days.  Then there are the fires out west which not only stop training, but require soldiers and marines to be sent out to fight them.

There are also global consequences.  General Cheney says climate change alone won’t cause wars but could make already existing threats even worse, as resources like food and water are stretched thin and people are force to move.  “One and a half foot sea level rise in Bangladesh gives you 20 to 30 million refugees,” he said.  “The sad part about it right now is it is unstoppable.  They know they will lose 20 to 30 percent of their land and have to move 20 million people.  The question is where will they go?”

Retired Rear Admiral Ann Phillips is on the advisory council for the Center for Climate and Security.  She spoke at the conference as well, and her biggest concern is rising sea levels.  She lives in Hampton Roads, Virginia, known for its large military presence including the Norfolk Naval Base.  It’s also become known for chronic flooding.  Scientists there say climate change is not only causing more frequent floods, but sinking the land as well.

When it comes to the Lowcountry, she worries about Joint Base Charleston.  She says all of the Navy’s nuclear training is located there and is critical to the operation of submarines and aircraft carriers.  “It’s not easily moved,” she said.  “It’s absolutely vital to national security.” 

Charleston and Beaufort mayors John Tecklenburg and Billy Keyserling spoke as well.  They’re lifelong friends now battling similar flooding issues in cities just an hour apart.  Both are grappling with old drainage issues as they try to figure out the best ways to protect their cities. 

While there has been much debate over climate change in Washington, D.C., there has also been movement.  Last year, Congress declared climate change a direct threat to national security.  Just last month, it passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization act which does make provisions for climate change.

But when asked what worries him the most, General Cheney says it’s the health of future generations.  He’s concerned about the pollutants that cause global warming and climate change,  and their impact on children.

“I mean, this is a much bigger issue than just national security,” he said.  “Long term, my biggest concern is my grandkids.”