As I celebrated this Fourth of July, I was grateful — grateful to spend time with my grandchildren, grateful to be moving on from an unprecedented year and a half of the pandemic, and grateful for normalcy. At the same time, our “new normal” will forever be changed. This year, more than any other time in recent history, showed us how vulnerable we are as a world to previously unknown threats.
In the military, we plan and plan again for contingencies. Weaknesses are unaccounted for vulnerabilities. In my time as the Commanding General of Parris Island, I worked with young Marines to prepare them for whatever the enemy threw at them. It was my job to protect our national security and protect our Marines by showing them the tools and tactics to prepare them for any scenario.
Looking ahead, we need to prepare ourselves for a different type of enemy. Natural disasters, forced migration, and regional instability all can be traced back to a single catalyst: climate change. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating ongoing conditions and spurring regional instability.
Studying climate change as a national security threat is not new. We at the American Security Project have dedicated the better part of a decade researching the nexus of climate change and national security. Climate change increasingly has acted as the impetus for conflicts throughout the world. The Syrian civil war in part stemmed from an ongoing drought that spurred poverty and food scarcity. Sporadic rainfall near the Lake Chad region in Africa led to regional instability that became the breeding ground for groups such as Boko Haram. Melting sea ice in the Arctic has led to increased tension over new maritime routes and resource access. In the U.S., rising sea levels threaten the readiness of our military installations. Climate change is the greatest national security challenge we have faced.
The U.S. cannot solve it on our own. We are a significant source of emissions, but we are only a part of the total. An estimated 13.4 percent of total global emissions in 2017 came from the U.S., but China emitted 24 percent, and the EU contributed roughly 9 percent of global emissions. Facing the threat of climate change requires all countries and leaders to put aside their differences and work together to drive down dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Natural disasters, flooding, droughts and extreme heat days don’t recognize countries’ sovereign borders.
Collaborative effort can reduce the threat all countries face, and reduce potential conflict stemming from climate change. Already, tensions have increased over water rights between China and India. Unanticipated resource allocation by climate change is a real danger to world peace. Climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution.
America’s leadership on climate change will define its global standing for years to come. We have made commitments to developing clean energy at home and financing clean energy in developing countries. Following through is imperative, as is encouraging our partners to follow through on their promises.
American leadership can help reverse the dangers of a warming climate, and it can improve U.S. standing abroad by providing a viable alternative to China, which has increased its leverage around the world through the renewable energy industry and lending practices. Allowing the status quo to continue risks eroding American influence abroad, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
We do best when American business can lead by example. Congress rightly has recognized that competing with China requires investing in innovation, but that innovation must be just the start of a deliberate effort for the planet and U.S. national security. If we are to put this crisis behind us before another decade of Independence Days has passed, we must have American leadership, American investment and American ingenuity now.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney (Ret.), USMC, is the president of the American Security Project. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has over 30 years’ experience as a Marine. His primary specialty was artillery, but he focused extensively on entry-level training, commanding at every echelon at both Marine Corps Recruit Depots, to include being the Commanding General at Parris Island. He served several years in Japan and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and Asia.