Op-Ed: Penguins offer U.S. a lesson in addressing climate change

Adelie penguins are in decline on the western Antarctic Peninsula.
(Steve Morgan / AFP)

It may seem unlikely, but penguins offer a crucial lesson for the United States’ national security.

On the western Antarctic Peninsula, climate change is wreaking havoc on stocks of krill, tiny crustaceans that penguins eat. Adelie penguins are in decline in the region because they have not changed their survival strategy and found something else to eat. Gentoo penguins have; they have been able to turn a threat into a comparative advantage.

The lesson, however, is not about penguins. It’s about us — humans — and how climate change could destabilize nations, spark wars and fuel terrorism — unless we change our strategy.


This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth “synthesis report,” an overview of the latest climate-related research and its policy implications.

The report’s findings, unlike the planet, are chilling. Among other devastating effects, the IPCC sees a near certainty that climate change will create unprecedented flooding, extreme droughts and catastrophic storms. These pressures will increase political conflicts, skirmishes and wars. Fragile governments may collapse. The ensuing power vacuum will be a gift to terrorism.

Admirably, some in Congress are trying to be like the generalist Gentoos, preparing for the coming storm. But an alarming number — including the majority of Republicans in the House and Senate — are following the self-defeating Adelies, refusing to accept that climate change is happening and therefore refusing to shift strategy in the face of risk.

Sometimes, members of Congress mimic penguin levels of intelligence when it comes to climate change. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) once actually touted the advantages of climate shifts, claiming: “Thousands of people die every year of cold, so if we had global warming it would save lives.” He could not be more wrong.

Adapting to and preparing for the effects of climate change must be a cornerstone of the United States’ national security policy, effective immediately.

The Pentagon agrees. This year, three military reports (the “Quadrennial Defense Review,” “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” and “National Intelligence Strategy”) all conclude that climate change is a crucial new frontier of military preparedness. This may be the first time that a U.S. military report has a picture of baby sea turtles on the cover, but the issue should not be taken lightly.


No single factor — including climate change — will cause wars or terrorism. But some factors make both more likely; other factors reduce the threat. Climate change is a “threat multiplier.”

Water offers a clear example. Water is already becoming scarce in arid regions, such as the Sahel belt in Africa, northern India and Pakistan, and in the Middle East — particularly Syria and Iraq. Scarcity probably will intensify as the climate changes.

Battles are already being fought over water. This spring, Iraq’s Shiite holy cities, Karbala and Najaf, experienced historic droughts. With abnormally low water replenishment from rain, the Euphrates River was the only backup. In January, Islamic State fighters captured the Fallouja Dam. Three months later, they shut off downstream water flow to 1.5 million people in Karbala and Najaf, and flooded other areas to disrupt the advance of Iraqi forces. Iraq’s forces eventually retook the dam. It would have been catastrophic for those cities had they not.

In August, Islamic State captured Mosul’s main dam and threatened to blow it up. That would have crippled Iraqi agriculture and energy production and possibly flooded Baghdad. The dam was retaken — another close call.

The value of water as a weapon will only increase because of climate change. Turkey is already using it, manipulating water flows as a way to put further pressure on Syria’s regime (which inevitably affected downstream flows to Iraq).

And water scarcity — or other climate effects — may fuel insurgencies in the first place. If a government cannot feed its people, provide clean water, or adequately respond to a massive natural disaster (each made more difficult by climate change), radical leaders will have an easier time finding recruits. Mali and Somalia have learned this lesson the hard way.


The Department of Defense acknowledges this danger, saying that climate change will exacerbate “conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

We must adapt. In the short term, the military must prepare to tackle the new threats posed by climate change. In the long term, Congress must work to mitigate avoidable future threats by reducing carbon emissions with a renewed emphasis on the green economy. That two-pronged approach will bolster American national security, turning a threat into a comparative advantage.

We can follow in the waddling footsteps of the adaptable Gentoo penguins and thrive. If we don’t, we will be just as intelligent as the declining Adelies, flapping our useless wings against the surging winds of climate change.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon scholar at the University of Oxford researching the causes of international political violence. Gemma Clucas is a researcher at the University of Southampton and at Oxford, focusing on the effects of climate change on Antarctic penguins.

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