Former Navy admiral raises alarm about dangers of ignoring climate change

David_W._TitleyA Penn state professor and former navy admiral is raising awareness about the dangers climate change poses to our national security.

Ben Thorp sat down with Admiral David Titely to talk about those dangers and the risks of not taking action.

Ben: Give me a sense for the military’s perspective on climate change.

David: So you want to make sure that we can prevail, very frankly. So the Pentagon and the Department of Defense spend a tremendous amount of time planning out, thinking about future scenarios, future situations; where countries may go unstable, where politics may change, where demographics may take into account, where economies may change. So if you think about that it would be only natural that if you had reasonable evidence, a reasonable anticipation that the physical environment, what we would call in the military ‘the battle space,’ if that changes you would want to know about that. Because if you are sent in to do any kind of job, any kind of mission, you want every advantage you can have. I tell people often that the American way of war is we play the away game but we want a home field advantage when we do that. To get that you have to understand what that environment is going to be like.

Ben: Tell me a little bit more about climate change as a piece of national security. Is it thinking about going to other places, as you were just talking about, or is it thinking about how changes in environment are going to impact cities along the coast, or something like that?

David: The short answer is yes. What I mean by that is there are both direct and indirect impacts of climate change that are going to impact our security. Really you can break it down into four areas and very briefly I’ll go through them.

The Arctic is it’s own set of issues and it’s opening up and we need to be ready, we see the potential for increased humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, we see these geostrategic places where already fragile countries and states cannot handle the added stress of climate change and can potentially collapse into chaos and if it’s a strategically important region for the United States we get brought in, and then finally the pressure on our own domestic infrastructure, critical infrastructure as well as the bases as well, that as well as the first three that are going on we are going to be pressured domestically.

Ben: Is your sense that we are prepared or are prepared enough for these things? And is there some concern when we have lawmakers who don’t believe in climate change and we potentially have a president, we have a presidential candidate right now, who doesn’t believe in climate change?

David: I think, yes, as you mentioned earlier the attitude of, not all, but many members of congress, the sense of the congress if you will, is that this is not an issue and this is not a security issue. In fact the House passed some legislation in their Defense Authorization Bill to that effect.

So it has what I would call a chilling effect. What I mean by that is if you go and talk to people who work in the White House they say ‘hey what don’t you guys understand? Here’s all the things the president has said, here’s what he has signed out, just go and do it.’ But if you actually want money for anything you have to go to Congress, that’s kind of how our constitution is written, and Congress says ‘I don’t really care what that guy says and I have the power of the purse and you’re up here and you want what? And you’re going to do what for climate?’ So most people who go and testify before congress from the Defense Department, or most other places, are pretty smart people and it’s like ‘do I really want to get in that fight and what is it going to do for me?’ The calculus is usually ‘this is not a thing I’m going to win at’ so you tend to downplay it, you tend to either do it and call it by other names or just not to do it because you want the money for the things that you need. You want the money for your base, you want the money for that next generation ship or aircraft or tank and if you go and upset these guys enough you might not get it. So it’s a chilling effect.

Ben: What are some of the dangers in your mind in not taking some of these precautionary steps, in not looking forward and saying ‘look, if we don’t start handling this problem it could get out of hand?’

David: That’s a great way how you phrase it, as a precautionary way or as Secretary Schultz talks about it when he looks at President Reagan handled the ozone hole. Reagan talked about this as ‘let’s take an insurance policy.’ That’s exactly how we need to be thinking about this. We need to go beyond the framework, all these directives and road maps and strategic plans, and actually start doing things. There’s a saying in naval aviation, ‘two things that are of no use to a pilot: runway behind you and altitude above you.’ I would argue that we’ve put a lot of runway behind us on this issue. The more and more we wait, the more and more the risk increases, and the risk is accelerating, and the harder it will be for us to ultimately deal with these situations, both to adapt to them, and in the long term to get to the root cause and stabilize the climate.