What's a Bigger Threat: Terrorism or Climate Change?

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 An abandoned farmhouse is seen on Feb. 6, 2014 in California. Now in its 3rd straight year of unprecedented drought, California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years.
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A new report called the National Climate Assessment is sounding the alarm on climate change, but will it change the political conversation about energy use?

"Climate change is not a distant threat," said White House Science Adviser John Holdren on Tuesday. "It is already affecting all regions of the country and key sectors of the economy."

But according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last spring, just 40 percent of Americans say that global climate change was a major threat to their country.

Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, who now serves as CEO of the American Security Project (ASP), says climate change and national security aren't two separate issues.

Gen. Cheney was the deputy executive secretary to Defense Secretaries Dick Cheney (no relation) and Les Aspin. During his time at the Pentagon, he says defense plans did involve climate change, though there were no specific plans to directly counter environmental damage.

"In the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review that was put out in February, there are several pages that address climate change as a long term threat that will create other threats to our stability here in this country, and will create instability worldwide," says Gen. Cheney.

Existing divisions of the U.S. military already view climate change as one of the world's biggest dangers. According to Gen. Cheney, Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear of the Pacific Command cites the changing climate as the number on threat to his area of operations.

"There's people who just don't believe that it's doing anything to our stability or effecting our security," says Gen. Cheney. 

However, he says that's just not the case.

"The insurrection in Mali where the Tuareg went North—drought caused that," he says. "It dried up their crops, they had to move, and they had to make a living. They went to Northern Mali, and that started the insurrection there. We know for a fact, obviously, that climate change contributed to that drought. That's just one example of instability that was caused by climate change, but there are probably dozens of others."

Gen. Cheney says threats from climate change include catastrophic weather, which the U.S. has already been effected by.

"Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for instance, was the largest and most powerful typhoon, perhaps in history," he says. "The number one responder to that was the United States."

While the U.S. military cannot fix every problem or address every insurrection, Gen. Cheney says that the United States does plan for humanitarian issues that come as a result of climate change.

"Long-term, we're interested in our own national security and that's the job of our Department of Defense," he says. "They do plan for humanitarian missions worldwide—we certainly do exercises every year with multiple countries talking about humanitarian assistance. We do some of that out of the goodness of the heart, and certainly we do some of that of the goodness of ourselves looking out for our own national security."

Other nations around the world already view this as a pressing issue. The ASP surveyed every country in the world and asked if climate change was included in their national security strategy—70 percent of nations said that climate change was a direct threat to their own security. 

"We're not in this alone," says Gen. Cheney. "It's a wake up call for us, but we're not in it by ourselves."

While Gen. Cheney says he doesn't foresee the Department of Defense creating a new division to combat the issues of a warming climate or extreme weather, he says that the U.S. military does view this as a threat, adding that is beginning to get more attention.

"This one's rising to the top," he says. "It's taking on a lot more notoriety. There's a distinct overlap between energy and climate change, and the number one consumer of fossil fuels in the country is the Department of Defense, and perhaps the world. They're aware of that, they recognize their dependence on fossil fuels, and they also recognize their contribution to CO2. I'm not saying they're going to cut back because they want everything to be greener, they're going to cut back because they don't want to depend on fossil fuels."

Keystone XL: The Greatest Climate Change Test?

When it comes to environmental threats on our home soil, sometimes there is more room for debate—and it's often politicized.

Perhaps there's no better example of this than the Keystone XL Pipeline. If approved, the Pipeline would stretch 1,200 miles across North America to connect to Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands or oil sands are a natural mixture of sand, clay, and water deposits saturated with petroleum. They take on the consistency of tar, and the Keystone XL Pipeline would transfer these deposits down toward Mexico to be refined and have the petroleum removed.  

Environmentalists and energy companies have fought bitterly over the proposal for the past five years.

“I know that there's some environmental concerns," said Senator Mary Landrieu [D-LA] on the Senate floor last September. "I think they're unfounded. I think they've been disputed by any number of groups. What I am just here to say is this is about American jobs. This is about building our infrastructure in America for more domestic production. Let's get over this hump and let's get together as we can. "

Along with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Senator Landrieu is again trying to move legislation to approve construction of the Pipeline without White House action.

But as the National Climate Assessment demonstrates, and as more and more evidence is released about the harmful impact of our reliance on fossil fuels, the Pipeline appears to be the greatest and most immediate test as to whether there is enough political will for any real action on climate change.

Michael Mann, climatologist and author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines," believes the Pipeline should be stopped.

"The economists that I do know and that I've talked to tell me that there's a fallacy here that some how the extraction of this particular oil will provide us with energy security," says Mann. "In fact, this pipeline will lead it to ports where it will be shipped and it will be sold on the world market. It will be largely used by other nations. That's the irony when we talk about this in terms of energy security—very little of this oil, in the end, will actually be consumed by Americans."

Mann says the National Climate Assessment, which was just released yesterday, currently represents our scientific understanding of the issue of climate change. 

"Hundreds of scientists have been working on this report for years," he says. "What it told us was quite sobering: Climate change isn't some sort of distant threat in the future. It is impacting us now negatively where we live, and it will get much worse if we do nothing about this problem." 

Despite the clear and present danger, will the government continue to pursue increased energy supplies and traditional national security threats over climate change?

"We don't have to try to scare people—in my view, if we present the science and the findings in a sober way, it is quite scary, but there's a message of optimism," says Mann. "The fact is, there's still time to move away from our consumption of fossil fuels in such a way that we avoid really locking in those most dangerous and potentially irreversible changes in climate. There are huge opportunities ahead of us in terms of clean energy and developing our clean energy industry here in the U.S. I'd like to think that there's a message of optimism we can still convey."

Mann adds that the problem of climate change can still be solved and actually bolster national security efforts.

"If you talk to national security experts, they'll tell you that one of the greatest threats to our future from the standpoint of conflict and national security is climate change itself, and the stress for resources that will bring on a growing, global population," he says.

The optimism held by Mann is fragile at best, and can be broken by the words "Yes" or "No." He says that politicians who vote "Yes" for the Keystone XL Pipeline will essentially be voting for the beginning of the end for planet Earth.

"There are different potential futures that lie ahead of us, and some of those futures are, frankly, quite bad," he says. "There are other futures that are still available to us where we prosper in terms of the economy and we deal with this environmental threat. So yes, in the worst case scenario, and you don't have to take it from me because national security leaders have portrayed scenarios that are not unlike the dystopian, futuristic movies of Hollywood when it comes to the worst case scenarios that lie out there if we choose to do nothing about it. The good news is we can choose to do something about it right now."

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