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Ten reasons why President Obama says global warming poses a threat to national security.

May 21, 2015

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama’s speech yesterday at the United States Coast Guard Academy commencement wasn’t just any feel-good spiel. These graduates already know where they’re going, and many of their future job challenges are already on their radar. The cadets will go on to at least five years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard, protecting the country’s maritime interests and natural resources. So the Commander-in-Chief chose to zero in on an issue that, he told them, “will define your entire careers”: climate change.

The president’s pleas for climate preparedness fall on deaf ears in certain branches of government, but not in the military. The Pentagon has regularly issued reports on the topic since 2000.

To complement President Obama’s speech, the White House released a document detailing the national-security threats posed by climate change, drawing from federal reports like the Third National Climate Assessment and the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review. And since the report’s release happened to coincide with David Letterman’s last night on the Late Show, it seemed fitting to present its findings in a Top 10 List format.

1. Batten down the hatches!
U.S. coastal areas—home to important military installations (including, duh, the Coast Guard), major infrastructure, and a growing percentage of the population—are increasingly vulnerable to rising seas, storm surges, and flooding.

2. A (new) sea of troubles.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. As a result, melting sea ice is opening new shipping routes that our military will need to keep tabs on. The warming waters also fuel the need to regulate commercial fishing for species like Arctic cod.

3. Lights out.
Remember Hurricane Sandy and the storm surge that sent half of Manhattan into darkness for days? Extreme weather can knock out power, and it’s not just inconvenient—it’s costly and dangerous. The outages caused by Sandy alone cost somewhere $27 billion and $52 billion, and patients at NYU Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital Center had to be evacuated after the hospitals lost electricity.

4. That’s the way the infrastructure crumbles.
Our country’s aging infrastructure is in dire need of an update. One-third of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and blackouts and electrical disturbances have increased more than 140 percent since 2007. Extreme weather threatens to damage or disrupt highways and the energy grid, along with pipelines, wastewater-treatment facilities, and public-transportation systems.

5. Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.
Changes in precipitation patterns could drive food prices skyward and make water harder to come by, spurring conflict and social unrest all over the globe. A U.N. report predicts that by 2030, the world population will have just 60 percent of the freshwater it needs.

6. Terror Alert: Red.
In his speech, President Obama made the connection between the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and climate change. According to the report, disruptions of global warming “may exacerbate existing stressors, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and political instability, providing enabling environments for terrorist activity abroad.”

7. Life’s not fair. Climate change really isn’t fair.
Climate change will affect everyone, but poorer countries—often those with weaker governments and less capacity to respond—will be hardest hit by drought, flooding, and storms.

8. Think the immigration issue is complicated now?
Sea-level rise and natural disasters could displace millions.

9. S.O.S. and S.O.L.
Increased conflict and disaster and humanitarian relief will give our armed forces more to do, while decreasing land availability could give them less space to operate.

10. Parasite invasions.
Increased heat, changes in precipitation, and shifting habitats could help spread pathogens, such as those that cause malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease. And those tiny soldiers are hard to kill.​


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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