What's a Bigger Threat: Terrorism or Climate Change?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

An abandoned farmhouse is seen on Feb. 6, 2014 in California. Now in its 3rd straight year of unprecedented drought, California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years. (David McNew/Getty)

A new report called the National Climate Assessment is sounding the alarm on climate change, but will it change the political conversation about energy use?

"Climate change is not a distant threat," said White House Science Adviser John Holdren on Tuesday. "It is already affecting all regions of the country and key sectors of the economy."

But according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last spring, just 40 percent of Americans say that global climate change was a major threat to their country.

Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, who now serves as CEO of the American Security Project (ASP), says climate change and national security aren't two separate issues.

Gen. Cheney was the deputy executive secretary to Defense Secretaries Dick Cheney (no relation) and Les Aspin. During his time at the Pentagon, he says defense plans did involve climate change, though there were no specific plans to directly counter environmental damage.

"In the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review that was put out in February, there are several pages that address climate change as a long term threat that will create other threats to our stability here in this country, and will create instability worldwide," says Gen. Cheney.

Existing divisions of the U.S. military already view climate change as one of the world's biggest dangers. According to Gen. Cheney, Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear of the Pacific Command cites the changing climate as the number on threat to his area of operations.

"There's people who just don't believe that it's doing anything to our stability or effecting our security," says Gen. Cheney. 

However, he says that's just not the case.

"The insurrection in Mali where the Tuareg went North—drought caused that," he says. "It dried up their crops, they had to move, and they had to make a living. They went to Northern Mali, and that started the insurrection there. We know for a fact, obviously, that climate change contributed to that drought. That's just one example of instability that was caused by climate change, but there are probably dozens of others."

Gen. Cheney says threats from climate change include catastrophic weather, which the U.S. has already been effected by.

"Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for instance, was the largest and most powerful typhoon, perhaps in history," he says. "The number one responder to that was the United States."

While the U.S. military cannot fix every problem or address every insurrection, Gen. Cheney says that the United States does plan for humanitarian issues that come as a result of climate change.

"Long-term, we're interested in our own national security and that's the job of our Department of Defense," he says. "They do plan for humanitarian missions worldwide—we certainly do exercises every year with multiple countries talking about humanitarian assistance. We do some of that out of the goodness of the heart, and certainly we do some of that of the goodness of ourselves looking out for our own national security."

Other nations around the world already view this as a pressing issue. The ASP surveyed every country in the world and asked if climate change was included in their national security strategy—70 percent of nations said that climate change was a direct threat to their own security. 

"We're not in this alone," says Gen. Cheney. "It's a wake up call for us, but we're not in it by ourselves."

While Gen. Cheney says he doesn't foresee the Department of Defense creating a new division to combat the issues of a warming climate or extreme weather, he says that the U.S. military does view this as a threat, adding that is beginning to get more attention.

"This one's rising to the top," he says. "It's taking on a lot more notoriety. There's a distinct overlap between energy and climate change, and the number one consumer of fossil fuels in the country is the Department of Defense, and perhaps the world. They're aware of that, they recognize their dependence on fossil fuels, and they also recognize their contribution to CO2. I'm not saying they're going to cut back because they want everything to be greener, they're going to cut back because they don't want to depend on fossil fuels."

Keystone XL: The Greatest Climate Change Test?

When it comes to environmental threats on our home soil, sometimes there is more room for debate—and it's often politicized.

Perhaps there's no better example of this than the Keystone XL Pipeline. If approved, the Pipeline would stretch 1,200 miles across North America to connect to Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands or oil sands are a natural mixture of sand, clay, and water deposits saturated with petroleum. They take on the consistency of tar, and the Keystone XL Pipeline would transfer these deposits down toward Mexico to be refined and have the petroleum removed.  

Environmentalists and energy companies have fought bitterly over the proposal for the past five years.

“I know that there's some environmental concerns," said Senator Mary Landrieu [D-LA] on the Senate floor last September. "I think they're unfounded. I think they've been disputed by any number of groups. What I am just here to say is this is about American jobs. This is about building our infrastructure in America for more domestic production. Let's get over this hump and let's get together as we can. "

Along with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Senator Landrieu is again trying to move legislation to approve construction of the Pipeline without White House action.

But as the National Climate Assessment demonstrates, and as more and more evidence is released about the harmful impact of our reliance on fossil fuels, the Pipeline appears to be the greatest and most immediate test as to whether there is enough political will for any real action on climate change.

Michael Mann, climatologist and author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines," believes the Pipeline should be stopped.

"The economists that I do know and that I've talked to tell me that there's a fallacy here that some how the extraction of this particular oil will provide us with energy security," says Mann. "In fact, this pipeline will lead it to ports where it will be shipped and it will be sold on the world market. It will be largely used by other nations. That's the irony when we talk about this in terms of energy security—very little of this oil, in the end, will actually be consumed by Americans."

Mann says the National Climate Assessment, which was just released yesterday, currently represents our scientific understanding of the issue of climate change. 

"Hundreds of scientists have been working on this report for years," he says. "What it told us was quite sobering: Climate change isn't some sort of distant threat in the future. It is impacting us now negatively where we live, and it will get much worse if we do nothing about this problem." 

Despite the clear and present danger, will the government continue to pursue increased energy supplies and traditional national security threats over climate change?

"We don't have to try to scare people—in my view, if we present the science and the findings in a sober way, it is quite scary, but there's a message of optimism," says Mann. "The fact is, there's still time to move away from our consumption of fossil fuels in such a way that we avoid really locking in those most dangerous and potentially irreversible changes in climate. There are huge opportunities ahead of us in terms of clean energy and developing our clean energy industry here in the U.S. I'd like to think that there's a message of optimism we can still convey."

Mann adds that the problem of climate change can still be solved and actually bolster national security efforts.

"If you talk to national security experts, they'll tell you that one of the greatest threats to our future from the standpoint of conflict and national security is climate change itself, and the stress for resources that will bring on a growing, global population," he says.

The optimism held by Mann is fragile at best, and can be broken by the words "Yes" or "No." He says that politicians who vote "Yes" for the Keystone XL Pipeline will essentially be voting for the beginning of the end for planet Earth.

"There are different potential futures that lie ahead of us, and some of those futures are, frankly, quite bad," he says. "There are other futures that are still available to us where we prosper in terms of the economy and we deal with this environmental threat. So yes, in the worst case scenario, and you don't have to take it from me because national security leaders have portrayed scenarios that are not unlike the dystopian, futuristic movies of Hollywood when it comes to the worst case scenarios that lie out there if we choose to do nothing about it. The good news is we can choose to do something about it right now."

What do you think? Vote below.


Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney and Michael Mann

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman and Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [17]

Steve from Medford, OR

Both are offspring of the same parent. Global overpopulation has both environmental and social consequences. These aren't just problems of technology or ideology. As human population exceeds the planet's capacity to mitigate the intensity of our footprint, increasing competition over territories and resources creates psychological stresses that escalate conflict. Large-scale migration, domestic violence, and international terrorism are going to be inevitable and permanent features in the fate of an Earth with more than 4 billion human inhabitants.

Nov. 18 2015 04:43 PM
John Switzer from Ocean Springs, MS

The very question posed here demonstrates the greatest danger: two political parties, each with differing reasons, but both desirous of control of the population.

Jun. 20 2014 06:10 AM
Bill.Marston from Philly

All I can say is "Duh!" Terrorism is immediate, frequently deadly, socially ruinous but of very limited physical extent (even at the scale of a nation, such as Sudan or Central African Republic, terrorism doesn't cover 100% of a nation, and not for more than a few decades or so, at the most.

However, CLIMATE CHANGE IS nominally FOREVER, UNIVERSAL (i.e. global AND directly addressing EVERY ASPECT of LIVING: agriculture, food sources, availability of non-salt potable water, utilities like water-sewer / electricity / public health / communications / etc., forced immigration (climate refugees), fiscal resources, mobility, fruitful jobs and compensation, trade, air quality, invested assests, massive urban destruction, social stability, etc.

Who would even wonder about this patently false dichotomy? I am personally ashamed of John Hockenberry whose personal story and decades of public radio work I have admired in the past, for posting this as a Question, as a theme or topic for this show. On the other hand, maybe posing the CC issue in this fashion is smart in that it may bring more "non-believers" and "non-actors" into something approaching unanimity in taking actions NOW, and at all levels, on Climate Change.

May. 09 2014 02:35 AM
Melissa from New York

Climate change can affect so many of the things that we don't think about:
-National Security
-Defense (including cyber attacks)
-Terrorism (which can be exploited more easily if Climate Change is not put in check)
-Energy (our grid system)
-Natural Resources
-Wildlife habitats (and migration)
-Food supply

If these aren't worth reinforcing and protecting, what would we have left without a sense of Climate normalcy?!

May. 07 2014 11:17 PM

This is a very complex problem that will involve the changing of many paradigms, and we all know change is hard for most people. Some of these things will be very hard to do differently but there are smaller, easier adjustments out there too. For example, there are many, many, many people commuting back and forth to offices only to sit in cubicles and do independent work. Imagine how much better we could do in terms of reliance on foreign oil, air pollution reduction, infrastructure maintenance, stress and emotional health improvements, use of coal dependent electricity, etc. if people could work from home for even a few days a week. It's a win-win-win. Happier planet, happier workers, happier employers. We have the technology, just not the forward minded leadership. In Hopewell, NJ, Merril Lynch has a huge campus teeming with cubicle worker bees - letting these people work from home on a rotating basis would reduce the number of gas guzzling, pollution spewing cars on the road by thousands and would reduce the amount of electricity needed at the workplace ... come on John Hockenberry, help make these big corporate dinosaurs come into the 21st century!

May. 07 2014 06:48 PM
oscar from ny

When your a wack or starting artist you will find out if working with oils that if not controlled you will make a mess "mud".
But after a master can control the oil and make it beautiful and even more...so that's why the lord made climate change so our factories and everything around us can be made simple clean and beautiful ...we should embrace this change and have fun doing it

May. 07 2014 03:59 PM
Austin J

Why aren't HAARP or geoengeneering mentioned?

May. 07 2014 03:01 PM

Obviously Climate change is the biggest threat - at least to humans. The world will get along just fine without us. However if President Obama would really like to see some change happen, all he needs to do is to end each statement that he makes in public with, "Of course, none of it matters if we don't deal with climate change" Taxes? "We are making a big change in the tax structure of the country - of course none of it matters if we don't deal with climate change." You get the idea.

May. 07 2014 02:31 PM

The notion that "Climate Change" is a bigger national threat than "economic stagnation" is a pure joke. An ugly, stupid, noxious joke. Economic stagnation threatens our national security if defense spending crumbles. Economic stagnation threatens our ability to influence the world economy in our national interest. Economic stagnation threatens our ability to fund our own national healthcare interests. Economic stagnation threatens all of our innovation and education infrastructure as well as our national physical infrastructure.

Climate change? Give me a break.

But I'll say this to The Takeaway producers: Give us more polls. Please, give us more audience polls, each and every day of the week. Because I'd like to see just exactly how far to the left this audience tilts. Pretty far left, I'd guess, and a lot more public polling will help us measure that.

May. 07 2014 02:29 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I have seen the terrorist, and it is ourselves.

May. 07 2014 02:27 PM

A meta-comment...

How does the timing and the manner of featuring this story fit in with the Obama Administration's overall messaging? Rather perfectly, I'd say. Not a week goes by in which the Obama Administration rolls out some regulatory or policy initiative, and The Takeaway doesn't respond, precisely on cue, with a story that helps amplify the desired effect.

It is a remarkable, seamless sort of coordination.

In this case, the Obama Administration wants to make 'climate change' a featured story of the week. Democrats are courting billionaire Tom Steyer for Senate campaign cash. Tom Steyer's pet issue is climate change. There's not a lot that Democrats can do for Steyer legislatively; rest assured that Democrats would if they could. So what the White House can do is say to Steyer, 'We'll make it a major news-cycle priority for as long as we can, and we'll push the President out in front on it...'

With public broadcasting's cooperation, the White House can make Steyer's pet message a lot louder, making Steyer and a lot of other liberals very happy. And more likely to give to friendly congressional candidates.

May. 07 2014 02:23 PM
Michael from New Jersey

The message about climate change needs to be scary and dramatic because the reality surely is. We need people to know the truth and we cannot afford to be lax with this issue.

May. 07 2014 01:10 PM
Scott from Stanwood Wa

Climate change and terrorism are becoming synonymous. As sea levels rise, glacial water sources melt, growing climates change or have droughts and energy becomes scarce many of the worlds populations will to need to relocate or fight over resources. Terrorism may be inevitable as populations without militaries compete without diplomacy for basic resources with those that control them. Governments will have to make hard choices as sea level inundates coastal cities and agricultural land. Certainly some island nations will need to relocate their entire populations. This is something we need to work on now to mitigate the future impacts of global warming. No public studies to my knowledge have been done on this. Another crucial item to our survival will be to decommission and intern the world's coastal nuclear power plants as sea level rises and economic resources for doing so become scarce. Again, no public studies have yet been done.

May. 07 2014 12:41 PM
Bill Vance from Strafford, NH

Some or most of terrorism is brought on by climate issues(drought, fires, energy needs, and natural resources). BUT, there is the makings of a silver bullet out there in the form of Permaculture. There should be a lo0t more media attention paid to this subject. PLEASE consider having one or more programs on this crucial subject(see Rodale's white paper)

May. 07 2014 12:17 PM
X-Ray2 from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Killing of the Keystone pipeline by the U.S. won't decrease the use of tar sands or fossil fuels. The resource is Canadian. It has a great market value. If the U.S. does not receive it or transport it, the Canadians will pipe it themselves and sell it others like China or Japan.

May. 07 2014 12:01 PM
Richard Whiteford from Pennsylvania

Leave carbon in the ground or humans won't be around. Please watch this 2 minute video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxQNy8G1cIQ

May. 07 2014 10:40 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Or, to put it another way, will climate change do us in before we do ourselves in with political conflict?

May. 07 2014 09:35 AM

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