When the Democratic candidates for president were asked about the biggest threat to U.S. national security, Bernie Sanders offered a singular response: Climate change. “The scientific community is telling us if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable,” Sanders said.
This was a strong statement on the seriousness of climate change from a candidate widely considered to be strong on environmental issues. While he has not released a climate or energy plan, Sanders has been vocal about the need to combat climate change, and even called for a debate focused specifically on the environment. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley released the most ambitious and comprehensive climate plan of all the candidates.
While this stood in contrast to most of the other candidates on the debate stage, this is hardly a new sentiment. Earlier this year, President Obama said that climate denial “endangers our national security” and “undermines the readiness of our forces.” The White House has also previously stated the need to combat climate change in its National Security Strategy. For years, military researchers have singled out climate change as a national security risk, acting not just as a “threat multiplier” but a “catalyst for conflict” that can be a driving force to start conflicts.
For his part, Martin O’Malley also mentioned the impact of climate change on national security. While his answer focused on the Middle East, O’Malley noted that climate change “makes cascading threats even worse.” O’Malley, along with security and climate experts, has previously linked climate change with the rise of ISIS, and has called climate change “a very real existential threat to human life.” And while she did not mention it during the debate, Hillary Clinton has also listed climate change as a national security issue and called it “one of the defining threats of our time” in her campaign kickoff speech.
So while Sanders may have been the first to name climate change as America’s biggest national security threat, he’s not alone among his Democratic peers in seeing its danger.
Republican candidates, many of whom deny the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change, have ridiculed those who see climate change as a national security issue. Mike Huckabee tweeted a joke about beheadings and sunburn during the debate:
They believe climate change is a greater threat than Islamic extremism, that a sunburn is worse than a beheading. It’s nonsense! #DemDebate
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) October 14, 2015
This was not the first time Huckabee made the quip. After President Obama talked about the seriousness of climate change in his State of the Union speech earlier this year, Huckabee made the same joke.
“Not to diminish anything about the climate at all,” Huckabee said, “but Mr. President, I believe that most of us would think that a beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.”
The data, however, show that more deaths per year can be linked to climate change than terrorism.