Medium: The Global Security Threat that the U.S. Candidates Haven’t Addressed

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Alice Thomas, Refugees International

While there are many reasons to be deeply unhappy about this year’s election, one issue in particular fails to get much-needed attention from the candidates and the media: global climate change. During the three presidential debates, neither candidate was asked a single question about climate change. Worse yet, the candidates’ plans for addressing this looming crisis hardly factor into their campaign platforms. What the candidates, the media, and many voters fail to recognize or take seriously is the significant and growing threat that climate change poses to global stability and U.S. national security.

More than 65 million refugees and displaced people struggle across the globe today, the most since World War II. If the crisis in the Mediterranean is any indication, the international community is totally unprepared to address the additional population flows that climate change is anticipated to unleash. Yet during the debates, the only discussion of refugees centered around the (baseless) accusation that refugees — who are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism — present a security threat. Unaddressed were far more important questions such as how we can better protect and assist not only the millions of innocent civilians fleeing conflict but also the millions more who have been driven from their homes by climate-related disasters each year (who are not protected by the 1951 Refugees Convention). Also unaddressed are questions about how to best support and promote the resilience of those most vulnerable to climate variability so that they’re not forced to resort to migration as their only available survival strategy. And despite all the bluster and hard talk, neither candidate has acknowledged the role that climate change will play in fomenting social unrest and even armed conflict in the future.

On November 9, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman will explore the link between climate change and conflict in “Out of Africa,” a segment from The Years of Living Dangerously series. If you’re someone whose vote today is based in whole or in part on concerns over national security, I highly recommend that you watch this program.

In 2010, Refugees International, deeply concerned about the role that prolonged drought and dwindling natural resources played in unleashing the violent conflict in Darfur, launched the Climate Displacement Program. Informed by field missions to climate-vulnerable countries, the program advocates to governments, the UN, and the public to act urgently to put in place laws, policies, and strategies to prevent and minimize climate-related displacement and protect the human rights of affected populations. Over the past six years I’ve met with countless individuals from around the globe facing displacement from changes in their environment linked to climate change. From impoverished, drought-stricken farmers in West Africa who had never even heard of human-induced climate change, to fishing communities in the Philippines who remain displaced three years after super-Typhoon Haiyan annihilated their villages leaving them homeless and jobless, what stands out most is that those most affected bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis.

As the U.S. National Intelligence Council recently warned, both at home and abroad, climate change presents one of the biggest security challenges of our time. Addressing it will require employing our ability to think strategically, to innovate, and to work collaboratively toward collective goals, as well as our sense of fairness and desire to help one another — things that truly make us “great.” Let’s hope the next president of the United States has what it takes to confront this critical issue and defend global security and threatened communities great and small.

Alice Thomas manages the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International in Washington, DC.