07.08.09

Mother Nature's Nuclear Strike

Climate change poses a catastrophic threat for all G-8 nations, writes the former Democratic nominee for president in a security memo he likens to President Bush’s pre-9/11 warning.

On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush famously received an intelligence briefing entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda terrorists did just that.

Today, as the leaders of the G-8 and the members U.S. Senate simultaneously debate climate-change policy shifts, scientists tell us we have a 10-year window—if even that—before catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable and irreversible. So I’ve put together the briefing that needs to be read by every American—before it’s the Day After.

Climate Change Poses Stark National Security Threat to U.S.

The scientific community agrees that climate change is real, human activity is contributing to it, and the window for doing something about it is closing rapidly.

Shifting weather patterns may turn the American “breadbasket” into a dustbowl.

Atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels have risen 38% in the industrial era, from 280 to 385 parts per million (ppm). Scientists have warned that anything above 450 ppm—a warming of 2 degrees Celsius—will result in an unacceptable risk of catastrophic climate change.

The truth is that the threat we face is not an abstract concern for the future. It is already upon us and its effects are being felt worldwide, right now. The Arctic will be ice-free in the summer of 2013, not 2030—and the loss of summer ice will accelerate warming because dark water absorbs more sunlight than snow and ice do.

Meanwhile, the ocean, which acts as a natural sink for carbon dioxide, is losing its ability to absorb emissions. This means that the impacts of climate change are being felt stronger than expected, faster than expected.

A recent study of the Siberian Shelf found that columns of methane bubbles—another greenhouse gas 20 times more damaging than CO 2—are rising from the sea floor as a result of warmer ocean waters in the Arctic.

The science is unequivocal. The question is no longer whether or not climate change is happening, it’s whether we’ve passed the climate-tipping point.

The stakes could not be clearer. Look at the tiny coastal village of Newtok, Alaska. Citizens there recently voted to move their village nine miles inland because melting ice shelves made their old home too dangerous. Anyone who doubts the reality of climate change should go to Alaska and see the melting permafrost for themselves, or listen to the state’s two U.S. senators tell worrisome stories about climate change’s current—not future—impact on their state.

The challenges will only grow more severe, however, if we do nothing to address climate change. Dramatic sea-level rises could result from glaciers melting in Greenland and Antarctica, shifting weather patterns may turn the American “breadbasket” into a dustbowl, and increased periods of drought will lead to political instability and population migrations around the world, including in our own hemisphere.

Because of the magnitude of the consequences facing us, the national-security community has begun to take note. In 2007, 11 retired American admirals and generals issued a report from the Center for Naval Analyses warning that “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national-security challenges for the United States.” In 2008, the final national-defense strategy of the Bush administration recognized climate change among key trends that will shape U.S. defense policy in the coming years. And the National Intelligence Council—the U.S. intelligence community’s think-tank—has concluded “global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national-security interests over the next 20 years.”

Nowhere is the connection between climate and security more direct than in South Asia—home to al Qaeda. Scientists now warn that the Himalayan glaciers which supply fresh water to a billion people in the region could disappear completely by 2035. Think about what this means: Water from the Himalayans flows through India and Pakistan. India’s rivers are not only vital to its agriculture but are also critical to its religious practice. Pakistan, for its part, is heavily dependent on irrigated farming to avoid famine. At a moment when the U.S. government is scrambling to ratchet down tensions and preparing to invest billions of dollars to strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to deliver for its people—climate change could work so powerfully in the opposite direction.

Worldwide, climate change risks making the most volatile places even more combustible.

The bottom line is that failure to tackle climate change risks much more than a ravaged environment: It risks a much more dangerous world, and a gravely threatened America.

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There’s much more to the climate-change challenge—threats to our military bases at home and abroad, threats to our allies, threats to stability in regions of the world the United States has invested billions of dollars and the lives of its sons and daughters.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Congress appreciates the stakes. It’s tragic that we live at a time when if one were to dismiss the threat of terrorism, you’d be run out of Washington in the next election. But there are no similar political consequences if you dismiss the science and the facts about the threat posed by climate change.

In less than six months, delegates from 192 nations will gather in Copenhagen to create a new global climate treaty. Between now and then, the United States Congress is expected to act on climate legislation. The decisions we make in these six months will determine whether we meet this challenge head-on and prevail or if we are to suffer the worst consequences of a warming planet.

This is our warning memo, America.

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, is the junior senator from Massachusetts and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.