Rely on facts in climate change

Posted: Monday, October 26, 2009

Some people eagerly respond to impassioned statements about climate change, such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's warning we cannot compromise with Earth. Others appreciate stunts, for example, a recent Maldive Islands cabinet meeting that convened under water to signal worries about climate change. To me, though, nothing resonates more than the evidence, the simple, straightforward facts.

At a bipartisan gathering here - hosted by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Kenneth M. Duberstein, formerly White House chief of staff in the Reagan administration - I listened to an intense discussion. Vice Admiral (Ret.) Lee Gunn, the president of the American Security Project, gave the primary presentation. His institute, a bipartisan undertaking, is dedicated to studying and providing recommendations to resolve key U.S. global challenges. It has produced a new report, "Climate Security Index," which can be found at

A 35-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, Gunn understands better than most the threats facing the United States. In this particular context, he was most concerned about an insufficiently discussed connection - the one between climate change and national security. It is fairly easy, unless one is a perennial skeptic, to recognize the immediate, tangible aspects of climate change, such as unusually severe storms, droughts and sea-level rises. Even more disturbing, however, is the next level of problems, which will produce increasingly evident security complications in the near future.

Perhaps at the top of the list is that climate change will force unprecedented migration as people spread out in search of food, water, shelter and livelihoods. They will not pause at political borders. Inevitably, tensions and clashes will ensue. Even if those displaced individuals remain within a given country, they will prompt domestic conflict and exert tremendous pressure on their government. Should the government be weak, as is the case in failing states, the moment of disastrous destiny will draw closer, leading to both instability and an opening for terrorists and other extremists. Tropical diseases are also on the move in this tumultuous setting, taking advantage of changing weather and temperatures. In addition, both commercial and U.S. military investments in facilities at coastal areas will come under assault. At some point, costly relocations will be required. The list goes on.

Only on three occasions in my lifetime have I perceived dangers so dire they posed an existential challenge to society as we know it. The first - the Soviet juggernaut of the 20th century - smothered itself in a heap of mismanaged superpower overextension. The second - a wave of terrorism starting in the late 1970s - still menaces, but can be substantially controlled with a persistent, systematic strategy that thwarts the perpetrators and addresses the roots of the problem. The third - climate change - preoccupies me more than the other two combined. Indeed, it stands as the single, worst threat humanity faces. If we manage to reduce its effects, we have a chance to live and thrive. If we ignore it, we doom ourselves to the death, destruction and other ravages current trends portend.

A degree in rocket science is not required to understand such dangers. Nor are the solutions beyond grasp - if we act with reasonable haste. "Climate Security Index" makes useful recommendations, such as reducing U.S. carbon emissions and persuading others to do the same; becoming more efficient across our entire economy; and expanding investment in renewable energy technologies.

The evidence on climate change, the simple, straightforward facts, is sobering. Americans should join the discussion and actively encourage serious solutions - before it is too late.

• John C. Bersia is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

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