Retired general: Climate change is a national security threat, including in the Carolinas

Tidal flooding in Tybee Island, Ga., in 2016. Climate change is real and is already presenting military risks to the United States.
Tidal flooding in Tybee Island, Ga., in 2016. Climate change is real and is already presenting military risks to the United States. New York Times

All Americans should be concerned about climate change. It is here. It is happening. And it is a major threat to our national security. Its effects on national security are playing out across the world from Syria to the Carolinas coasts. Our national leadership must look at what’s happening, admit that climate change is real and that we are the cause, and take appropriate action.

Look at the rise of ISIS in Syria. While there were certainly political issues at work, climate change also played a significant role as ISIS placed its black flag on Syrian soil. Syria was in the midst of its most severe drought in modern history. Farmlands dried up. As a result, more than a million Syrians left their farms and moved to the cities. Thousands of unemployed young men were living close together under terrible conditions. ISIS offered them hope. The rest is a sad history. But it is history that will continue to repeat itself if our leaders deny that climate change is a real product of our modern society. The problem isn’t just in the Middle East. Extreme weather events are wreaking havoc around the globe – driving people off their land and into new environments.

Climate change is already causing problems for the U.S. military. I was once the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. That base is experiencing more and more black flag days, times when it is too hot to safely train troops. Naval bases are also losing ground to climate change. Naval Base Norfolk is headquarters for the Atlantic fleet. The sea level at Norfolk has risen more than 14 inches since 1920. So-called sunny day flooding inundates base roads and docks. The same problem is occurring in North Carolina at Camp Lejeune.

This is also an economic issue for North Carolina. With Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the military is an important segment of the state’s economy. Disruptions to these operations because of climate change could cause serious harm to North Carolina’s bottom line.

The military also must respond to natural disasters that are becoming more common with the disruption brought by climate change. Last fall, the military dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In just a couple of weeks, the 2018 hurricane season officially begins. We can expect more powerful storms and more destruction. We must be ready to respond.

But responding is not the full answer. We must get ahead of climate change. We must act now to reduce carbon emissions. That means moving to renewable sources of energy. It means getting away from our dependence on fossil fuels.

Some elected leaders, particularly those who live in states with vulnerable coastlines, recognize the problem. Last summer, a bipartisan vote in Congress defeated an amendment that would have prevented the military from taking the effects of climate change into account as it planned. Republicans and Democrats agreed that planning for climate change is crucial to our national security. We need that kind of bipartisan effort to embrace carbon reduction standards for all segments of our economy.

Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, USMC (Ret) is the CEO of the American Security Project. He will be speaking at a the World Affairs Council of Charlotte’s National Security Series on May 24. For information and to register, go to