Climate Disruption, National Security, and the State of our Union

Image courtesy of International Rice Research Institute via Flickr.

If CIA surveillance picked up intelligence about a terrorist action that would alter weather patterns so as to slash global food production, unleash droughts and floods, ignite fires, inundate coastlines and turn millions of people into refugees it would not only headline the president’s State of the Union address, it would force the US government to mobilize as it has not done since World War II.

The disruption to Earth’s climate caused by the burning of fossil fuels promises all of this dramatic impact, yet it continues to be treated as an “environmental” issue rather than what it really is – an urgent threat to national and global security.

That President Obama, in his State of the Union address this week, had to inform the lawmakers sitting before him that “the debate is settled” and “climate change is a fact” shows just how far we have to go before we can expect action even remotely commensurate to the dangers.  Even Pentagon brass has declared climate change a “threat multiplier” – if not a direct threat on par with terrorism.

President Obama continues to do what he can without the support of Congress.  The upping of automobile fuel mileage standards and the stricter regulation of coal-fired power plants are significant actions, to be sure.  But the unequivocal support he gave in his address for natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a more renewable energy future is a ruse: there is so much natural gas available through fracking technology that, as climate blogger Joe Romm has said, it is “bridge to nowhere.”  It merely perpetuates our dependence on carbon-based energy, while threatening our water supplies.

In my commencement address at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania last May, I told the graduates that I felt my generation owed theirs an apology.   A quarter century has passed, I said, since that sweltering day in June 1988 when NASA scientist James E. Hanson testified to a U.S. Congressional committee that the planet was warming and that it was 99 percent certain that the warming was not due to natural variability but to the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere.

The years turned to decades as we denied, dithered, and generally wasted valuable time to slow the climate train down and avert its catastrophic consequences, all the while scientists routinely delivering more troubling reports and predictions about what lies ahead.

And now here we are, in 2014, with our president feeling the need to inform our lawmakers that climate change is real – essentially what Hanson said 25 years ago.

Last May, just a couple weeks before my address to the students and their families in Scranton, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million (ppm), and it continues to rise.  Hanson and other scientists consider 350 ppm the maximum “safe” level if we desire a planet like that on which human civilization developed.

President Obama certainly ended the climate portion of his speech with the right oratorical flourish: “[W]hen our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

But nothing he proposed, and nothing likely to emerge from the Congress gathered before him, offers any hope of that wish coming true.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.



Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.