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Mace & Crown | March 19, 2018

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Unpacking Kerry's Climate Speech

Unpacking Kerry’s Climate Speech climate climate
Sean C. Davis

It’s not outlandish to say that John Kerry’s speech at the Ted last Tuesday was historic, especially for Hampton Roads. Just days after President Obama announced that the Keystone XL Pipeline would be rejected, signaling at least symbolically that his administration intends to take climate change seriously, Kerry delivered what was arguably an equally significant message here. Military planners, climate scientists and geopolitical analysts have been saying for years that climate change cannot be ignored if we are to maintain our national security and military readiness. For Kerry to travel to Norfolk to deliver that same message is akin to him traveling to Syria to declare war on the Islamic State. This is the frontline.


Secretary of State John Kerry speaking recently at Old Dominion University about climate change and national security. Photo by Jason Kazi

As it pertains to the region, the Secretary of State’s 45-minute message can be condensed to a couple key points: First, because Hampton Roads and the military forces here are so vulnerable to rising seas, learning how to engineer and implement adaptation measures is imperative. Second, the federal government cannot implement these measures alone; there has to be coordination between agencies and different levels of government.

Now, you might be wondering why the head of the State Department delivered a speech on what could understandably be seen as an environmental issue instead of, say, the head of the EPA. The answer is that climate change is such a massive global issue that it requires world governments to work together (the main focus is not on recycling and polar bears anymore, but ensuring sustainable development and the unprecedented global transition away from the burning of fossil fuels). The COP21 climate negotiations in Paris next month, for instance, could produce some of the most important UN legislation in history.

While Kerry professed to having been a lifelong environmentalist, his message was really all about maintaining American military power and upholding our “national interests” around the world. Climate change presents a security challenge on two fronts. First, it threatens to hinder our own capacity to make war, but it will also increase conflict around the world, which as Kerry argues, increases the need for American leadership and therefore increased military action.

“Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier,’ making worse the problems that already exist,” Kerry said, citing Former Virginia Senator John Warner’s 2009 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He later expanded:

“The bottom line is that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods and increase the risk of instability and conflict especially in places already undergoing economic, political and social unrest. And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected, economically, technologically, militarily, in every way imaginable – instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere.”

“How many of you are under 29 years old here today?”

Raise your hands…

“Those of you with your hands in the air… I want you to know you haven’t lived through a single month that was cooler than its 20th century average – not one. Think about that. It means that what used to be normal no longer is.”

“The past decade was the hottest on record. The one before that was the second hottest on record. The one before that was the third hottest on record. You beginning to get it? Three decades in a row.”

“Nineteen of the 20 warmest years in recorded history have occurred in the past two decades.

And this year, my friends, is on track to be the warmest of all.”

And that instability and conflict isn’t just something we have to plan for in the future; it’s an issue we’re dealing with today. Kerry cited the Syrian civil war and the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram, and the extreme droughts that immediately preceded them, as examples. He was clear to maintain, however, that climate change was not the sole cause.

“Then there’s the issue of mass migration itself,” Kerry pivoted. “The horrific situation that we are viewing today may deteriorate exponentially in light of more intense droughts, rising seas, and other impacts of climate change.”

One of the most important facts about climate change is that it’s going to displace millions of people. The cruel irony is that it will be the poorest, most vulnerable people on the planet – the ones who have contributed to, and benefited least from, the burning of fossil fuels – who will become the climate refugees. Bangladesh, for example, could see as many as 18 million displaced people by the middle of the century. So, especially in light of the European migrant crisis, it’s easy to see how this could contribute to conflict and strain resources around the globe.

The other front the military has to fight is here at home. Hampton Roads is home to not only the largest Naval base in the world, but the highest concentration of military installations in the world as well. That the sea level in the area has risen a foot and a half in the last 100 years, and is rising at twice the global average, presents a pretty dire problem.

The direct impact of increased flooding on regional military facilities is well documented. Flooding from Hurricane Isabel, for instance, caused over $170 million in damage to Langley Air Force Base in 2003. The military has spent millions adapting facilities and raising critical infrastructure, but as George Mcleod, assistant director of ODU’s Center for Geospatial and Visualization Computing, explained, even if the military adapts, their readiness is still affected if the region as a whole doesn’t.
In the event of a flood or storm, personnel could become stranded in the surrounding community.


Tidal flooding from Hurricane Joaquin and two other combined storm systems near the Gresham and Rogers residence halls at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Photo by: Sean Davis

“All of a sudden your crew can’t get to your ship, or your critical personnel can’t deploy. That’s a massive national security problem,” he said. “I’m sure the military could envision a case where an enemy might take some action to be timed with a storm in the Hampton roads area, which they knew would prevent our readiness.”

One of the most important points of Kerry’s speech was that effective adaptation planning hinges on coordination and communication between all related parties.

While there are many agencies and resources being devoted to tackling the problem, getting everyone on the same pagecan be a challenge. That’s where the Pilot Project comes in.

The Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise Preparedness and Resilience Intergovernmental Planning Pilot Project (you can see why it’s just referred to as the “pilot project”), based here at ODU, aims to be the grand coordinator. The White House tasked the Project with organizing all the moving pieces at different levels of government to allow for the allocation of federal funding, without which meaningful measures would not be possible. Kerry praised the pioneering work the project has accomplished in its short history, calling it “a perfect example of the type of coordinated effort that we need to deploy from sea to shining sea.”

According to Ray Toll, who heads the project, that was one of the goals from the start: to establish a successful example for other communities affected by climate change in the future.

“If we do [implement effective adaptation measures], we’re going to see a more resilient society. We can take care of areas when they’re deserts and we can get rid of the water [in flood-prone areas],” he said. “That’s what resiliency for me is all about; to show that we as a country, with technology, can deal with climate change because we have the expertise and the wherewithal to do it.“

Kerry’s visit was seen as a sign of the project’s success for the former Naval captain.

“It was gratifying for me having been working on this experiment for the better part of the last two years,” he said, adding that it was encouraging for the hundreds of committed volunteers as well. “It really did substantiate what all of these ideas we had back in 2009, at the beginning of the pilot, [were]: that we’re doing this because we can eventually make a difference.”

Considering that just a few years ago, the state government wouldn’t even allocate money to study sea level rise (the wording had to be altered to “recurrent flooding” to remove climate change from the equation), it’s encouraging that some of the most important adaptation research and is now being done in Norfolk. Factor in the recent rejection of Keystone XL (which was sure to pass when it was announced in 2008), the implementation of the EPA’s (potentially embattled) Clean Power Plan, and as Kerry noted, that the renewable energy industry now employs four times as many Americans as the fossil fuel industry, and you might have a recipe for some optimism.

“I really think that the political pendulum has moved far enough along our path that something will start to materialize more quickly,” Toll said.


Hurricane Joaquin combined with two separate storm systems flooding 49th street on Old Dominion University’s campus in Norfolk, VA. Photo by: Sean Davis

There’s no real debate that the U.S. needs to drastically cut emissions and transition to a clean energy economy, fast. Even if we do, Kerry argued, “We can only deal with this with a global solution, but… I say to you clearly and without equivocation – American leadership is critical to global success.”

While it’s only briefly been mentioned in both the Democratic and Republican presidential debates, the implications of future climate change policy are obviously of paramount importance. That’s absolutely terrifying if you consider the possibility of a Republican presidency.

“There are some running around this country campaigning even now – who refuse to acknowledge the human cause and effect on climate change because they say they themselves are ‘not scientists…’ They ignore the conclusions of 97 percent of the peer-reviewed scientific studies – several thousand studies – that have addressed this issue,” Kerry said.

The threat of climate change, as it is made clear by science and the military presents a very interesting challenge to Republicans: how do you address a real (and significant) national security concern without acknowledging the force behind it, which just so happens to undermine your ideology?

“The science tells us unequivocally: Those who continue to make climate change a political fight put us all at risk,” Kerry said to a loud applause.

“We are not going to beat climate change; we are going to have to adapt to climate change,” Mcleod said when I asked him about what a successful strategy would look like.
“It will get addressed because the problem’s not going anywhere,” he continued. “So I don’t worry about the minority of people that just say that this isn’t a problem because it’s going to be a problem in five and 10 and 15 years and it’s a self evident problem.”