J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Why John Kerry should treat climate change as a national security issue

The secretary of State will be uniquely positioned to broker action through diplomacy.

For centuries, the glaciers of the Western Himalayas have fed the Indus River, which flows down the mountains through India and into Pakistan, where it runs the length of the country to the Arabian Sea. In both countries, the river is a crucial source of water for livestock, irrigation, drinking—essential to life and livelihood for millions of people.

But as climate change causes global temperatures to rise, the glaciers that feed the Indus are receding. A series of scientific reports indicates that in the coming decades, the river’s water levels could drop by as much as 40 percent. Already, some Indian policymakers are raising the idea of damming that water off for their own country. That could save the lives of millions of Indians, while threatening millions of Pakistanis. Pakistan lacks the economic, political, or conventional military leverage to retaliate against India if that happens; it matches its neighbor only in nuclear weapons.

National security agencies around the world, including the Pentagon and the CIA, are watching the situation closely, nervous that climate change could one day ignite a nuclear face-off between these two volatile neighbors.

That’s exactly the type of event John Kerry, approved earlier this week as secretary of State, was referring to during his Senate confirmation hearing, when he called climate change a “life-threatening issue” of national security. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, has long been a so-called climate hawk, framing his drive to stop global warming in terms of curbing a force that inflames conflicts around the world to the detriment of U.S. safety.

In an impassioned Senate floor speech in August, Kerry compared the potential peril from climate change to the threat of war. “I believe that the situation we face [with climate change] is as dangerous as any of the sort of real crises that we talk about” in Iran, Syria, and other trouble spots, he said.

He has taken plenty of heat for that view from Republicans, many of whom question the science of human-caused climate change, scoff at any link to national security, and say that solving global warming is the wrong priority for the nation’s chief diplomat. But defense and intelligence officials say the link between climate change and national security is clear, dangerous, and urgent—and a raft of national security experts say it’s high time the nation’s top foreign policy official treated it as such.

In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon identified climate change as a major “threat multiplier.” While climate change itself doesn’t cause wars, it can, like a spark on dry tinder, exacerbate already volatile circumstances.

Around the globe, climate change contributes to rising sea levels, more-intense drought, and food and water scarcity. Already, swaths of land in Africa and the Middle East have become too barren to support crops, and scientists warn far worse is to come as the globe continues to heat up in the coming century.

Security experts say the slow but steady spread of the Sahara through Mali, killing crops and leaving farmers starving, may have been a contributing force in the jihadist uprising in that African country last year—an uprising that has taken many lives and led to a deadly hostage-taking at a gas plant in neighboring Algeria in January.

“If you look at the Sahel band in Africa—Mali, Niger, Somalia, Egypt—you’re finding more and more jihadists there, in an area which is already unstable. And climate change compounds that instability,” said Drew Sloan, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, who works closely with the Truman National Security Project and has briefed President Obama on climate issues. “As climate change makes those dry areas get drier, as crops are threatened, you take away people’s ability to farm, take away their food, and then you present an alternative to that,” he said. “It presents a recruitment opportunity for jihadists, who can also blame the problem on the gluttony of America.”

Climate change has also set off what’s predicted to become a towering wave of “climate migrants” in vulnerable and volatile parts of the world. Rising sea levels are expected to displace an estimated 20 million people in Bangladesh; the first waves of migrants are already fleeing flooding and destruction in the low-lying nation. Andrew Guzman, an economist and international legal expert at the University of California (Berkeley), says this torrent of “climate migrants” will heighten border tensions, create vast new refugee camps, and send displaced people streaming into cities in need of shelter and basic human services—in numbers that could create a humanitarian crisis for which nobody is prepared.

The question, however, is what the chief U.S. diplomat can actually do about climate change. Although no single official, or nation, can solve the problem alone, Kerry will be uniquely positioned to broker action through diplomacy. In France in 2015, the world’s nations are set to sign a global treaty that would legally bind them to cut their global-warming pollution. Much of the world views the success of the treaty as largely resting in American hands. If the United States acts to cut its carbon emissions—either through legislation or, as seems far more likely, through Obama’s use of executive authority and regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency—the country will be well positioned to broker a global climate deal.

While the secretary of State can’t control EPA, he can, as first among equals in the Cabinet, quietly counsel the president to act on emissions regulations. To the rest of the world, says Charlie Ebinger, an energy and foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, Kerry “can sound the clarion call. He can convey that the U.S. will take moral leadership on this.”