ALEXANDRIA, Va. — One of America’s greatest challenges also is North Dakota’s great opportunity. In 2007, a blue-ribbon panel of generals and admirals issued findings of an intensive yearlong study on the impact of climate change on U.S. national security. They concluded that a warming planet constitutes “a serious national security threat” that will affect Americans at home and U.S. military operations abroad. And to mitigate the worst security consequences of climate change, the study’s authors — the Military Advisory Board of the nonprofit defense research and analysis organization, CNA — recommended reducing global greenhouse gas pollution.
In a follow-up report released in May, I joined the board in finding that America’s energy posture constitutes a serious and urgent threat to national security — militarily, diplomatically and economically. Moving beyond the dangers of imported oil, this new report finds that overreliance on fossil fuels, plus the state of the nation’s fragile electric grid, pose significant security threats to military mission and the country and are “exploitable by those who wish to do us harm.” We identify a series of “converging risks” associated with future energy choices and conclude diversifying our energy sources “is critical to our future energy security.”
The politically difficult challenge of reducing greenhouse gases is a golden opportunity for businesses and investors in North Dakota and across the Plains states. These states are well-positioned by natural endowment and educational level, and they boast the manufacturing and agricultural know-how to develop the technologies and renewable energy sources that can lead us toward a low-pollution future and energy independence. This week, as a member of the Military Advisory Board, I will meet with North Dakotans to deliver this message.
The ways in which climate change will impact our security are many and flow from global warming’s predicted environmental impacts — more extreme weather events, drought in some regions and flooding in others, food and water shortages, rising sea levels and the rapid spread of infectious disease. These events may well trigger large-scale human migration, political instability and conflicts over resources such as food and water. In some cases, these events could lead to direct U.S. military intervention and the political failure of nation-states.
Climate change also poses a direct physical threat to U.S. military installations worldwide. Hurricanes in 1992 and 2004 caused severe damage to Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base and Pensacola Naval Air Station. The strategically important U.S. military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, a logistics hub for U.S. forces in the Middle East, is only a few feet above sea level and, like many other U.S. bases here and abroad, may be at risk from rising seas.
The military’s role in defending our national interests is not only a combat role but a humanitarian one. The humanitarian crises triggered by climate change’s environmental impacts almost certainly will create situations only our military has the capacity to address. This will tax military structures; but as my colleague on the MAB, retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald, says, we cannot avoid our humanitarian obligations “because part of our national security depends on remaining true to our values.”
Luckily, our national security interests align perfectly with our interest in a strong, resurgent national economy based on the clean energies of the future. Over the past decade, job growth in the clean energy sector handily outpaced that in the economy as a whole. Building a new clean energy economy is one of the best ways we can put America back to work. North Dakota, which some call “The Saudi Arabia of wind,” and other farm states are especially well-positioned to lead a clean energy economy in which wind, solar and biofuels will feature prominently.
North Dakota also is a leader in carbon sequestration. And you have a smart, eager, entrepreneurial work force ready to take up these challenges. Reducing greenhouse gas pollution by building a clean-energy economy addresses two major challenges at once: It’s a win-win that will be a critical step in assuring America’s security well into the 21st century.
A retired U.S. Navy vice-admiral, McGinn is a member of the Military Advisory Board of CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization based in Alexandria. He is a former commander of the U.S. Third Fleet and deputy chief of naval operations in the Pentagon. He will appear in public forums Thursday through Saturday in Grand Forks and Fargo.