President Obama on Wednesday largely ignored major advances by the Islamic State, a nuclear North Korea and other threats to the U.S., and instead sounded an alarm on climate change, telling future military officers a warming planet is perhaps the most sweeping danger facing the nation today.
In a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony, the president painted an almost-apocalyptic future scenario where the U.S. military must deal with the fallout from global warming. That fallout, the White House argues, could include droughts, famines and natural disasters — each of which likely would lead to poverty, drive up terrorist recruiting and fuel conflict around the world.
Mr. Obama also seemed to partially blame climate change for the rise of the terrorist group Boko Harem in Nigeria, the ongoing civil war in Syria and other global troubles.
His comments come at a time when the administration is under fire from lawmakers and other critics for lacking a comprehensive strategy to push back the Islamic State, which captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi earlier this week. Republicans blasted Mr. Obama Wednesday for equating climate change — a centerpiece of the president’s second-term domestic agenda — with terrorism and other dangers, saying his speech at the Coast Guard Academy reflects a “disconnect from reality” that endangers America and will embolden its enemies.
But Mr. Obama’s speech made clear that, with about 18 months left in office, the White House is doubling down on climate change and is intent on making the issue not just a domestic priority but also a key component of American foreign policy moving forward.
“This is not just a problem for countries on the coast or for certain regions of the world. Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune. So I am 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. And so we need to act — and we need to act now,” the president said at the ceremony in New London, Connecticut. “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. Climate change will shape how every one of our services plan, operate, train, equip and protect their infrastructure, today and for the long-term.”
Mr. Obama already has laid out an ambitious agenda to fight climate change. The biggest and most controversial piece of that agenda is an Environmental Protection Agency plan to drastically limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
The president also is pursuing a landmark global climate deal with China, the European Union and other major polluters. He hopes to finalize the historic agreement at a United Nations climate conference in December.
While Republicans — along with many Democrats in energy-producing states — long have objected to Mr. Obama’s domestic climate change programs, they say he has now gone too far by equating global warming with other top national security priorities.
“It’s no wonder that our military personnel’s trust in their commander in chief is at an all-time low. The president’s speech at the Coast Guard Academy stating his belief that climate change poses the greatest threat to future generations is a severe disconnect from reality,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Mr. Inhofe also is a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“When I talk to military personnel, whether in Oklahoma or overseas, their greatest concern is not climate change,” he continued. “Instead, what I hear is their concern for global instability, the disarming of America and the lack of vision from their commander in chief. When the president speaks to his troops, he should be injecting confidence that their sacrifices will not be vain and that their investments will ensure a better future for the next generation of Americans. This is not the speech that was given.”
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the president’s focus on climate change indicates that the federal government will be diverting time, money and resources away from true threats.
“The White House shouldn’t busy [the Department of Homeland Security] with climate politics when terrorism is going viral,” he said in a statement.
While Mr. Obama’s Coast Guard speech represented the most explicit link he’s drawn between climate change and national security, the administration has for years painted a warming planet as a serious threat.
The Pentagon released a detailed climate report last fall that classified global warming as a “threat multiplier” that will add to the already daunting challenges facing the U.S. military.
“It has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts,” reads a portion of the report.
Mr. Obama reiterated that point Wednesday, telling Coast Guard Academy graduates they may be called on to address conflicts that have arisen in part because of climate change.
“Understand, climate change did not cause the conflicts we see around the world. Yet what we also know is that severe drought helped to create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram,” he said. “It’s now believed that drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in the heart of the Middle East. So, increasingly, our military and our combatant commands, our services, including the Coast Guard, will need to factor climate change into plans and operations.”
Some national security analysts say Mr. Obama is on point with his message.
“Droughts, famines, floods and catastrophic storms destabilize regions of the world with weak infrastructure and fragile governments. Extremist groups take advantage of chaos to fill the voids of power. Our military must stretch our resources thin to secure our vital interests around the globe,” said Michael Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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