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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Security and Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Courtesy of Battelle Memorial Institute)

Military experts are concerned about the effects of global warming on national security. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, a retired Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, about some of the threats our nation may be facing in a changing climate.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Earth Day began back in 1970 as a massive rally during a time of great polarization over the War in Vietnam. The public had been fired up in part by the flames on Cleveland’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River. This year Earth Day finds a public deeply divided over another war, this time the one in Iraq, and once again there is much concern about the environment, now focused on global warming.

What to do next is It’s now a matter of intense debate within the UN Security Council, the US Congress and the national security establishment. Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, recently appeared before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and joins me now.

Hello, sir.

MCGINN: Hello Steve. It’s great to be with you today.

CURWOOD: So why are bodies like the UN Security Council and the United States military interested in the effects of climate change?

MCGINN: I think if we look in the past slightly we’ll get a sense of what we could be facing in the future. You recall the terrible aftermath of the tsunami in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, Thailand, India. It was a major humanitarian assistance disaster relief exercise for multinational forces but led by the United States. So the effects of weather on populations, on human health and on, if you will, stability are well documented throughout our previous history. The problem that global warming poses, or the challenge I should say, is that there’ll be increasing likelihood of those natural disasters and the natural disasters could become more chronic rather than acute.

CURWOOD: So could you please rank climate change, global warming relative to other threats. For example how does it compare in importance to say terrorism or a rogue nation getting a nuclear weapon?

Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Courtesy of Battelle Memorial Institute)

MCGINN: Well I think they’re interrelated. Certainly terrorism and climate change or the effects of climate change. Any time you have an unstable, fragile democracy, or even non-democratic country it’s living on the edge of desperation. And it is in those conditions from which terrorism comes out. People have very, very limited economic and quality of life choices for themselves and their families. They turn to ah, radical means to try to solve their problems or get the world’s attention.

CURWOOD: Let’s look at the military side of this for a moment. From a purely military perspective how do we need to be prepared to respond differently given the threats posed now by global warming?

MCGINN: I think we’re going to see more demand for military capabilities to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief scenarios. That is complicated by the fact that in many cases it isn’t simply people suffering as a result of natural disaster. It can be a combination of natural disaster and unrest in a particular country or region of the world.

CURWOOD: There’s been a lot of attention to this suddenly and growing at the UN, Congress, the latest report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change and you folks at the National Security establishment. How soon do you see these concerns really starting to settle into our national security agenda and how are we going to turn this battleship around towards the new threats or I should say perhaps carrier because battleships, I guess, aren’t around very much these days.

MCGINN: They aren’t. The carrier, ah, metaphor will do just fine Steve. I think it has already started. The rudder is over. It’s not over full but it’s over ten degrees in the right direction. At a hearing by the Select Panel on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Chairman Markey called for the conduct of the nation intelligence estimate. This is the format, if you will, for significant in-depth studies of potential threats to our national security and I’m absolutely certain that the national security establishment will conduct a national intelligence estimate. This could be the, ah, start of some significant policy reviews by the military and by our entire national security establishment including the State Department and the diplomatic sphere.

CURWOOD: Optimist on this Admiral or are you pessimistic today?

MCGINN: I am optimistic. I believe that action begins with awareness. I think the awareness is growing. I think that we have ability in this country to rise to any number of challenges just as we have in the past. In Apollo project, let’s get a man to the moon within this decade. Clarion call by John Kennedy in 1961. Manhattan project or perhaps even a better analogy that Tom Friedman has used is the New Deal in which people at every level of American Society in the midst of the dark days of the economic depression were able to do something that helped bring the nation out of that tough time and led to continued success through World War II and beyond.

CURWOOD: Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn is senior vice president and general manager of the Energy, Transportation, and Environment Division at the Battelle Memorial Institute. He recently testified in front of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

[MUSIC: United States Military Academy Band “Drum Salute (Drum Cadence)” from ‘West Point On The March’ (Altissimo! – 2007)]


CURWOOD: And they’re off!

[MUSIC: Mathew H. Phillips & His Circus Band “Steeplechase” from ‘Thoroughbred Thunder’ (Albany Records - 1998)]



Center for Naval Analysis National Security and the Threat of Climate Change

United Nations Security Council

House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming on Sourcewatch.org

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


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