The Pope and U. S. Military Voice Support for Action on Climate Change

A water distribution point at the Ifo extension camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Drought, desertification, water scarcity and population dislocation are among the climate-related threats that pose risks to global stability and national security, according to a new assessment by former U. S. military officials. Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees / S. Modola.
A water distribution point at the Ifo extension camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Drought, desertification, water scarcity and population dislocation are among the climate-related threats that pose risks to global stability and national security, according to a new assessment by former U. S. military officials. Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees / S. Modola.

As the Obama administration unveils its plan to slash carbon pollution from U. S. power plants, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church and former top brass in the U. S. military have each issued proclamations in support of climate protection.

In recent weeks, Pope Francis and a group of 16 retired U. S. military admirals and generals called separately and unequivocally for action to safeguard humanity by protecting the planet.

“If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us!” the Pope said before a large crowd gathered in Rome on May 21.

Calling the exploitation and destruction of nature a “sin,” Pope Francis told his flock to see the Creation not as “property, which we can rule over at will,” but as “a gift.”  He called on humanity to be “not Masters of Creation” but “Custodians of Creation.”

The Pope delivered his message after a five-day summit in early May hosted by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, titled “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.”  It brought together an esteemed group of scientists, economists, philosophers, legal scholars and others to discuss the impacts of global climate disruption and environmental change.

For their part, the former military leaders issued an update to their landmark 2007 report, which had branded global climate change “a threat multiplier,” aggravating stressors that breed terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

Now, just seven years later, citing the impacts of extreme weather, such as “prolonged drought and flooding – and resulting food shortages, desertification, population dislocation and mass migration, and sea level rise,” this elite group of three and four-star admirals and generals has come together again to warn that in many areas climate impacts will be more than threat multipliers: they will be “catalysts for instability and conflict.”

Much of the update, titled National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change, focuses on the military group’s mounting concerns about the impacts of climate disruption on the nexus of water, food and energy security and the implications for social and political stability.

They link recent political upheavals and potential new terrorist threats in areas such as Mali, northern Africa, and Syria variously to drought, desertification, rising food prices and food insecurity.  While by no means the sole factors, these climate-related stresses may be catalyzing conflicts.

On May 15, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released its assessment that this year’s wheat harvest in Syria – impacted by an “exceptionally dry” January and February – will be some 52 percent below the annual average for 2001-2011.

The former military leaders note that more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the world is warming and that human actions are the primary cause.  They call for the United States to lead global efforts to develop a more sustainable and efficient energy system to slow the pace of destructive climate impacts.

“If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty,” retired U. S. Army General Gordon Sullivan says in the report, “something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

In their foreword to the report, published by the nonprofit, Virginia-based CNA Corporation, Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush Administration, and Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration, extol it as “a bipartisan call to action.”

“We no longer have the option to wait and see,” they warn.

That President Obama is forced to use executive administrative orders, in this case through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to get meaningful action on climate change is due to Congress abdicating its role, argues Harvard Law Professor Jody Freeman in a New York Times opinion piece.

Yet despite the fact that the EPA’s approach “has a solid legal foundation,” Freeman writes, legal challenges “could tie up this effort for years.”

Meanwhile, Pope Francis, told those gathered in Rome that humanity’s responsibility is to “safeguard Creation.”

“Creation is a gift,” that we care for and use “for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”

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.

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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.