National Security has been at the center of bipartisan rhetoric throughout post-9/11 America. Why wouldn’t it be? With the many legitimate threats the United States faces such as terrorism driven by radical religious and ideological dogma, a rising China, Russia’s slow reversion to Soviet tendencies, cyberwarfare, and a refugee crises spilling out of the Middle East and Africa, it is only natural for the talking points to reflect that. These issues tend to get the most media coverage, mostly due to the exciting headlines that are manufactured to feed on sensational tactics and boost ratings. But the biggest threat to American national security doesn’t have catchy headlines, nor does it kill in the name of a deity, or target people based on their culture or heritage; this threat does not discriminate. Climate change is the one issue that every human being living on this planet should want to fix, not for political reasons or to make a statement, but for the simple, primal desire for self-preservation.
The problem with climate change is that the effects are easily ignored in daily life. People have jobs, families, and appointments that occupy most of their time, and when a massive issue like climate change comes along the challenge seems far too daunting for the individual citizen to do anything about. Coupled with the active campaign to discredit the science behind climate change, these factors ultimately guide public opinion to inaction. However, it has become more difficult to look the other way when the effects have started to present themselves with increasing prevalence.
2015 was the hottest year on record all around the globe, prompting many to revisit the root of the issue. However, only 46 percent of Americans make the connection to man-made climate change as the cause. And while that number has increased in the last few years, the lack of consensus on the issue by over half the population has continued to retard any progress made toward a solution.
With the election concluded and our new president-elect already making arrangements for his transition to the White House, it is important to remember the views on climate change our new leader holds. On December 30th, 2015, two weeks after the Paris Climate Conference, president-elect Trump stated at a rally in Hilton Head, South Carolina., “Obama’s talking about all of this with the global warming and … a lot of it’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax, a lot of it.”
Whatever your political leanings are, it should be clear that this statement was made due to a lack of information and understanding of the issue, and should be considered an outright refusal of facts. Climate change is not a partisan issue, and while I won’t openly attack one side of the political spectrum, it is important to point out the shortcomings of one side’s argument over the other. If any group, political or otherwise, were to disregard or discredit the evidence of climate change I would make a point to highlight their shortsightedness and refusal to accept scientific fact. This is not a distinction coming from bias, but one made objectively by looking at each side’s plan of action, or lack thereof.
Which brings us to the issue of national security. As temperatures rise, the ice in Greenland, Antarctica, and the North Pole will begin to melt at faster rates. According to Jason Box from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, the rise in sea level is, in large part, due to the blackening of glacial ice on the southern half of Greenland. This phenomenon is attributed to the ever increasing number of forest fires in North America as well as other pollutants in our atmosphere generated by fossil fuel powered machinery and energy grids. The black ice absorbs the heat that the white snow and ice would normally reflect back into space, causing the ice to melt at an exponential rate. Box insists that if left unchecked, the melting will continue to a point where seas are expected to rise by as much as 26 feet by 2100, altering world maps forever, erasing some countries entirely.
While that date seems far into the future, it should be said that this is a time our grandchildren will live through. What is clear is that the timeline isn’t set in stone, and as we’ve seen from the recent severity of hurricanes and floods, adding a drastic rise in sea level would create serious problems for residents of the coastal and low-lying areas. The rise in the seas would swamp entire neighborhoods, destroy infrastructure, salinate any natural drinking water reservoirs, and leave millions of people homeless.
In a year when the issue of refugees’ effects on national security has been a constant talking point, seldom is that point made with respect to climate change. There are currently around 25 million people living in and around coastal areas in the United States. When the seas do rise those people will need somewhere to go, leading to mass migration and an immense strain on resources in higher altitude areas. Food, water, and fuel shortages due to overcrowding will lead to looting and crime, which will become the central focus of the government and police; keeping order among citizens. Informal settlements will form out of the hundreds of refugee fringe cities that will naturally coalesce in an attempt to accommodate the sheer number of people affected. While 25 million is only a fraction of all the people living in the US, it doesn’t begin to account for the number of people who would be left without homes outside of our borders. Nearly every major city on the planet has been built near the coast and with the rise in globalization, the development of these coastal cities has exploded, saturating the urban areas with dense populations and sequentially sprawling new and informal settlements to outside the formal parameters of the cities.
According to a study conducted by the United Nations, roughly 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast, equalling just about 2.8 billion people who will have to move to higher ground. The refugees will not only be forced out of their own homelands, but they will then crowd foreign territory with populations that speak different languages and hold different cultural values or beliefs. One of the most renowned minds in political science, Samuel Huntington, put forth an argument known as the Clash of Civilizations, in which he states, “Human beings are divided along cultural lines, Western, Islamic, Hindu and so on. There is no universal civilization. Instead, there are these cultural blocks, each within its own distinct set of values.” These divides are what lead to conflict even without the added tension that scarce resources would bring to the table.
It is important to note that the first waves of eco-refugees will not be from developed countries that possess the infrastructure to withstand this level of devastation. They will be from small island nations, like Kiribati, a country of over 110,000 people that is built on 33 eroding atolls in the central Pacific. In response to this imminent threat, the government of Kiribati has bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, an island that is less susceptible to coastal erosion and maintains a significantly higher elevation. This plan of “immigration with dignity” is one potential way countries with little infrastructure of their own could at least secure a stable future for their people.
However, not every eco-refugee would be able to simply buy land in another country, and other countries won’t have much land to give. The question of national security becomes paramount when entire populations are forced into territories under a different flag. As we have seen from the Syrian refugee crisis, taking in thousands of people who have no income, no property, who belong to a different culture, and rarely have the ability to speak the same language, has created serious concerns for the host countries in respect to national security. In 2014, the Pentagon released a report that was published by the New York Times outlining its stance on climate change, referring to it as, “an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty, and food shortages.”
Putting aside, for the moment, the logistics of trying to control and organize such a massive population shift, it is necessary to grasp the reality of the future situation. Not only will there be more people living closer together under potentially abject conditions, leading to a rise in crime, disease, and even terrorism, but also, the fertile lands dedicated throughout the world to agriculture will be severely diminished and destroyed due to the insurmountable stress of a changing environment. A report published by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that with advancing climate change brings more heatwaves that will directly affect livestock and crop yield. Combined with the expected growth of the human population to reach nearly 9 billion by 2050, the increased strain on our system of food production will make it unlikely that we will be able to adequately feed humanity. Especially if the number of displaced eco-refugees rises to the point where 40 percent of the population will be required to move, leading to the largest refugee migration in the history of civilization. Famine, war, disease, and human suffering on an enormous scale is our fate, unless something changes.
The late Carl Sagan, a paragon of scientific understanding and discovery, said it best in his book Pale Blue Dot:
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
The Earth is by all accounts the perfect environment for humanity. For millions of years our evolutionary ancestors have lived and developed here. Our chemistry is inextricably linked with this place. The environment has been perfectly suitable for our development as a species, but now we are drastically changing the chemistry of the planet, and by doing so we are jeopardizing the future of the human race. With that said, it is often difficult to accept an ugly truth when we are presented with such a sunny alternative that will keep us blissfully ignorant, even when that alternative has no basis in fact. Believing that climate change is not a real or present threat paints a much brighter, business as usual, picture of life than the reality we actually live in.
The burden then falls to us, the species that claims to be the most intelligent and evolved to become the caretakers of our damaged biosphere. The responsibility should not fall solely on the people who will be affected first by climate change or who are first to witness its horrors, but rather the ones who contributed most to its severity. Developed nations like the United States must use the financial and technological resources available to it that are not accessible in other countries to curb the effects of climate change. But it will take more than just using energy efficient light bulbs or unplugging appliances, the days where those efforts were enough have passed. We need the power of legislation behind fixing climate change. Policy like a carbon tax would nudge companies away from fossil fuels and toward the limitless potential of renewable energy. A potential that every day we grow closer to relying on. Or a mandate that the government halt any allocation of funds or subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, or its interests on the basis of national security. We have a responsibility to our comrades and to future generations, to secure the safety and longevity of not only our nation but also, the well being of our entire species.