Climate Change Increasing Security Threat, Former Army Chief Says

Office of CommunicationsCorps of Cadets, News, Z2

In a Todd Lecture Series speech at Norwich, GEN Gordon R. Sullivan said global warming is spurring a spate of growing risks to US interests
Office of Communications

February 6, 2015

Former US Army Chief of Staff Gordon R. Sullivan NU ’59 said climate change is spurring more instability around the world and that the security risks from global warming are advancing faster than expected.

“We are not prepared for the pace of climate change,” Sullivan said, noting that it will impact US military readiness and national power, particularly domestic infrastructure.

Already the US has been caught flat-footed by the speed of melting sea ice in the Arctic. Russia, Canada and Denmark are posturing for control of oil reserves beneath the North Pole. But the US lacks sufficient ice-hardened ships and communications and navigation gear to respond to crises there, Sullivan said.

Elsewhere, shifting weather patterns will stress the world’s ability to meet regional demand for food and fresh water, leading to further political unrest and potential mass transnational migrations. Sullivan said this is particularly true in Africa and Asia, where the human population is exploding.

Climate change will place more demand on the US military to respond to national and international crises, challenge readiness and send troops into harsher operating environments, Sullivan said.

The retired four-star general made the remarks yesterday during a speech focused on climate change and national security at his alma mater, kicking off the first Todd Lecture Series event of 2015.

Established in 2008, the free public lecture series aims to bring thought-provoking speakers to inform and inspire the Norwich campus and central Vermont communities.

Sullivan served as the 32nd Army Chief of Staff under Presidents Bush and Clinton, where he helped reengineer and downsize the US Army in the wake of the Cold War, leading it into the Information Age while facing a 40 percent budget cut.

Since 2006, Sullivan has served on the Military Advisory Board of the CNA Corp., a government-funded nonprofit military research organization.

In 2007, the panel of 16 retired generals and admirals identified climate change as a “threat multiplier,” particularly in fragile areas of the globe.

The board issued a second report last year, concluding that climate change poses an accelerating risk to national security.

For example, it linked the devastating drought of 2010 in the US, Russia and China to a steep decline in world wheat production that sparked a series of cascading effects. Bread prices spiked in Tunisia, Egypt and other wheat-importing countries in Northern Africa. The shortages and massive price increases led to food riots and unrest that precipitated the Arab Spring revolutions.

“While there were deep underlying causes for overthrow of several of the governments, the catalyst that set this off can be directly linked to weather and climate change,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s speech outlined the effects climate change is having on four major areas related to US national security: global instability, melting Arctic sea ice, US military readiness and US power.

Sullivan gave a synopsis of recent climate change trends and how they might destabilize regimes or regions in the future.

He noted that in January, both NASA and NOAA reported that 2014 was the warmest year on record since 1880, that the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, and that eight of the ten costliest US storms have occurred in the past decade.

“Globally, we have seen recent prolonged drought act as a factor driving both spikes in food prices and mass displacement of populations, each contributing to instability and eventual conflict,” he said.

“For example, five years of drought in Syria decimated farmers’ crops and forced millions to migrate to urban areas. These drought refugees found little in the way of jobs and were quickly disenfranchised with the government,” Sullivan said.

“The result is civil war in Syria.”

Sullivan said additional impacts can be seen in unprecedented wildfires and the effect of rising sea levels on low-lying island nations, some of which are planning whole-sale evacuation.

“Over the coming decades, I think those areas already stressed by water and food shortage and poor governance—these span the globe—will present the greatest near term threat for conflict,” he said.

“In the longer term, many of these areas will be threatened by rising sea level.”

Sullivan, who serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Norwich, closed his presentation by challenging Norwich students to lead the nation in tackling the complex problems associated with climate change.