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DOD: Climate Change Is A Volatile Factor In International Security


The debate over climate change in this country has dramatically shifted over the years. The question is no longer whether climate change exists, but rather what can be done to slow its effects? And the U.S. Department of Defense is asking the same question.

This past week, the Pentagon released a report saying that rising temperatures pose an immediate threat to national security, and it outlined a plan to the crisis. Retired Admiral David Titley led Navy's task force on climate change. And he told us food, water and energy insecurity could all cause or worsen crises that might require a response from the U.S. military and, in many cases, already has.

ADMIRAL DAVID TITLEY: Let's roll ourselves back to just before the Arab Spring. There were massive droughts in Russia, in Australia and Pakistan. And it's, like, well, those are - you know, who cares? Well, the reason we cared is those are all big wheat growing regions. So the worldwide wheat harvest was pretty significantly impacted.

So now, in addition to all the other stresses of - I would argue not-so-great governance, existing tensions and strife - now you throw in a very rapid rise in the very basic foodstuff, and boom, it's sort of like throwing a match into a gasoline vapors. And then we got the Arab Spring. So while I don't think anybody claims that climate change caused the Arab Spring, there's a lot of research that shows that it was probably one of the contributing factors.

MARTIN: But how would the military respond? I mean, when there's a military, national security threat like terrorism or like an insurgency, the U.S. military trains to then go meet that threat. What do you propose that the U.S. military be doing to combat climate change? Is there anything from a tactical level that can be done?

TITLEY: Sure. So from a tactical level, if, you know, you look at one of the places in the world that is changing faster than any other place else, it's the Arctic. So how does the U.S. military get ready to operate in the Arctic? Do we have the right kinds of ships? Do we have our sailors trained? Have they gone up there before? Do they actually understand, you know, how little infrastructure there is - the kinds of weather and sea and ice conditions that they're going to see? Do we have the...

MARTIN: Can you make the connection? Can you make the connection for me? Why would the U.S. military have to open up that front? Why would they be working in the Arctic?

TITLEY: They'd be working in the arctic because we've already seen a fivefold increase in the number of ships going through the Bering Strait. And the Bering Strait of course is that strategic piece of water between Alaska and Russia that connects the Pacific with the Arctic Ocean. Oil and gas, I think many people know that some of the last greatest reserves of oil and gas are up in the Arctic. We can argue about whether it's right for us to take that out of the Arctic or not, but the fact is, is that's where it is. And right now, the big oil and gas companies are up there.

Tourism is growing rapidly and not just, you know, one or two people on a kayak, but these big, big cruise ships with thousands of people. So the Arctic is becoming - whether the military wants it or not - more and more like other oceans. So if the Navy and the Coast Guard are not ready to work up there, that becomes a problem.

MARTIN: And lastly, just the sense of urgency - the Department of Defense has been talking about climate change for a while now and raising the warning that there could be implications for national security. But this report is different in that it suggests an immediate threat. Is there anything in this report that's going to trigger immediate change as a result?

TITLEY: That's always a good question, Rachel, when you're talking about the Department of Defense in a report is that - is anything going to be an immediate change. I think this is a great marker along the road to being really climate ready. But now I would say from being outside the Defense Department, that the hard work begins. How do you find those scarce dollars - those tough dollars to find not only to do the assessments, but then to do what the assessment tells you, you need to do? So I look at this as just a mile post - an important milepost that the Department of Defense has put out. But it's by no means the end of the journey. And climate and this future threat will have to compete with every other near-term threat that the department has to face.

MARTIN: Retired Rear Admiral Titley talking to us about the Pentagon's new report on climate change as a national security threat. Admiral Titley, thanks so much for your time.

TITLEY: OK, thanks very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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