A Different Kind of Climate War: Global Warming and National Security
By now you’ve probably heard about the potential for global climate change to impact the environment, the economy, even the range of vampire bats. But what about national security?
That’s exactly what retired Navy Vice Admiral Lee Gunn has been talking about in Texas this week.
Gunn served in the U.S. Navy for thirty-five years. He joined the Center for Naval Analysis (now known simply as CNA) after his retirement in 2001. He’s in Texas on behalf of CNA’s Military Advisory Board, a group whose report “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” brought attention to the security aspect of climate change in 2007.
During his visit, Vice Admiral Gunn is talking with policymakers and leaders in the energy industry about investment in renewable technologies and security issues. He also stopped by KUT’s Newsroom to talk with StateImpact Texas’ Mose Buchele.
StateImpact Texas: How do you think national security will be threatened by climate change?
Gunn: It will be more difficult to operate for military forces in some parts of the world. And yet, we are going to be asked to operate more frequently as the stresses on failing states increases, as the desperation that people experience increases — when that desperation turns itself into terrorism– or when humanitarian assistance disaster relief is needed directly in response to more frequent and more serious climate events.
StateImpact Texas: When you look at a lot of the places where our military is present right now around the world, it’s in some of those ungoverned territories. Is it in places where they are seeing perhaps some ecological strain as well?
Gunn: It’s a very fair assessment. Among the last things I did operationally on active duty was be the naval force commander and the deputy combined force commander for the final withdraw of the UN Peacekeepers from Somalia. East Africa is one of those territories that you are talking about.The climate change, in part, is moving the margins in third-world areas that have normally defined the folks who are cultivators and the folks who are collectors and foragers. And as the traditional territories have changed shape because of the climate it has given rise to natural conflict. Those are the kinds of things you are talking about.
I have also been in refugee camps in northern Kenya, mostly Somali refugees who were escaping that terrible period, and to sense the desperation that is present there because there are no opportunities, there’s no education. There’s no, it’s a survivalist kind of social and cultural infrastructure there. This kind of thing is inevitably the spawning area for the kinds of threats that the U.S. and the Europeans have faced and that other parts of the world will face, too.
StateImpact Texas: Because we have so many military bases in Texas, how do you see that relating with your main message, that the military is going to have to kind of change to confront the new global reality.
Gunn: Right here in Texas, you have a number of major military installations. And each one of them is providing evidence right now of how great new ideas can be applied to save energy, to satisfy new burgeoning requirements, all of that kind of thing.
StateImpact Texas: Before you joined us today a colleague of mine observed that people who work in the ocean are often more attuned to the challenges posed by climate change. One of those challenges is the potential for rising sea levels. Can you speak to any specific concerns you might have there, and if you see that as being a problem in the Texas Gulf region?
Gunn: I think eventually, given what is happening in the Arctic, there will be substantial sea-level rise. It won’t be in my lifetime, but them I’m a lot older than you are, Mose.
But increasingly the frequency of storms and the violence of storms will be imposed on coastal areas that are less and less capable, gradually less and less capable, of sustaining the damage that’s involved.
Sea-level rise is a real concern over the long haul for the Navy because, of course, we build piers and when there’s nothing to moor your ship to, you can’t come home anymore.
– Vice Admiral Lee Gunn (Ret.)
Sea-level rise is a real concern over the long haul for the Navy because of course we build piers and when there’s nothing to moor your ship to, you can’t come home anymore. We are going to have to rebuild a lot of Navy infrastructure on the coast line. The seas in general are changing in troubling ways that I think are not appreciated broadly enough, and part of it is back to the Co2 emissions, the carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning. We are acidifying the ocean, that is the acid base in the sea column is changing.
That’s changing the health of the environment for the species that we partly depend on for our lives. The fish and the entire food chain in the ocean is subject to change with a rapidity that has never been experienced before. The changes have all taken place, one way or another, in the past. They’ve just never happened this quickly, or to such a degree, that the earth has experienced in the past.
StateImpact Texas: Well, Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, thank you so much for talking with us today.
Gunn: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to be here.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.