Obama turns up heat on climate change, national security

In a commencement address at the US Coast Guard Academy, President Obama addressed risks to national security from the growing impacts of climate change.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama speaks at the 134th Commencement Exercises of the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., May 20, 2015.

When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, climate change was high on his agenda. He backed so-called “cap and trade” legislation to limit greenhouse-gas emissions – as did his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

By mid-2010, the bipartisan consensus had evaporated. The House had passed cap and trade the year before, but the bill died in the Senate, after conservatives re-branded it as “cap and tax.” In his 2012 reelection campaign, Mr. Obama barely mentioned climate change.

But since last year, the issue has come roaring back – as much an effort by Obama to effect change in his remaining time in office as to shape his legacy post-presidency. And he is framing it as not just as an environmental matter but also as integral to the economy and to national security.

In an address Wednesday to graduates at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., the president focused on the security dimension.

“No nation is immune,” Obama said. “So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”

The president provided his usual caveat – that no single weather event can be blamed solely on climate change – but he drew a general connection between weather-related disasters, such as droughts, and political instability in countries such as Nigeria and Syria.

“So, increasingly, our military and our combatant commands, our services – including the Coast Guard – will need to factor climate change into plans and operations, because you need to be ready,” Obama said.

Domestically, he said, the effects of climate change are already visible in coastal areas, putting the Coast Guard on the front lines.  

“Climate change, and especially rising seas, is a threat to our homeland security, our economic infrastructure, the safety and health of the American people,” Obama said. “Already, today, in Miami and Charleston, streets now flood at high tide. Along our coasts, thousands of miles of highways and roads, railways, energy facilities are all vulnerable.”

The president warned that a rise in sea level of one foot by the end of the century could cost the nation $200 billion.

The Pentagon is studying the vulnerability of the more than 7,000 US military bases and installations to climate change; it’s also assessing the increased demand for the National Guard amid extreme weather events.

In March, the White House introduced its plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the US by nearly a third over the next decade, through executive action. This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency will put in place standards for power plants. And in December, Obama will travel to Paris for a global summit on climate change.

At the beginning of the year, in his State of the Union address, Obama made what may have been his strongest statement yet on climate change.

“No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” Obama said on Jan. 20.

Obama returned to the generational argument Wednesday when he addressed the more than 200 graduates of the Coast Guard Academy.

“You are part of the first generation of officers to begin your service in a world where the effects of climate change are so clearly upon us,” the president said. “It will shape how every one of our services plan, operate, train, equip, and protect their infrastructure, their capabilities, today and for the long term.”

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