'The Burden' filmmaker discusses climate, security debate as international tensions mount

Does climate change pose the greatest threat to the United States' national security, as presidential candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently suggested? During today's OnPoint, Roger Sorkin, writer and director of "The Burden: Fossil Fuel, the Military and National Security" and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, discusses his research and interviews with current and former military officials on the growing concerns surrounding climate change as a "threat multiplier."


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Roger Sorkin, writer and director of "The Burden: Fossil Fuel, the Military and National Security." Roger's also a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Roger, thank you for coming on the show. Nice to see you.

Roger Sorkin: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Roger, the conversation on climate change and its impacts on national security is getting fresh eyes this week as new international conflicts erupt and international climate negotiators prepare to head to Paris in December. Several leading think tanks here in Washington, including the Council on Foreign Relations, have researched and reported on the topic. Your film "The Burden" digs into the issue of oil and national security. You also talk about climate change. What brought you to this topic and compelled you to explore it further?

Roger Sorkin: So in 2010, the Department of Defense issued their Quadrennial Defense Review, and in it, they mentioned climate change as a threat multiplier, and that phrase I think really says it all. You don't really have to have a real working knowledge of the military to understand that threat multiplier is a serious thing, and you know, in connecting the dots, you know, military strategists think in very long cycles. They think -- they're thinking 100-year cycles, and they know that if we don't get a handle on carbon emissions, that will create instability. Our military is often the first responder, whether we like it or not, even in terms of natural disasters. It may not even be some sort of military conflict, but if you look at Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines a couple of years ago, the U.S. Marines were the first responder there. And with the increased severity and frequency of storms, we see more of a burden put on our military from a budgetary standpoint, from a manpower standpoint, and it really -- these create what are called opportunity costs. So the more resources we have to divert to natural disasters and instability due to climate change and the environmental challenges that result from climate change, the more stretched our military budget and personnel are going to be.

Monica Trauzzi: You spoke to some very high-level former military officials for this project. How do these former officials characterize the threat?

Roger Sorkin: Well, we talked to Gen. Tony Zinni, who was one of the lead authors on a report a couple of years ago that came out from CNA, I believe it was, and he paints the picture of instability, again, as we were discussing. The more environmental problems, and environmental meaning it doesn't even have to be climate change. I mean, it could be aquifers running dry because of overpopulation or poor resource management. It's not a climate issue necessarily, but it's an environmental problem. And even those environmental problems, they are exacerbated by too much fossil fuel consumption, pollution that ensues from that. And so he's looking at these big-picture concepts, you know, in addition to strategically we use a lot of resources just to keep the oil flowing freely around the world. Even though we drill a lot at home, we still demand much more than we can produce at home, and because oil is set on a global market, it's a global commodity, the price is fixed internationally, it's not something that we can adjust. The more we demand, the more that price goes up. And so that puts money in the hands of adversaries, that puts money in the hands of terrorists that syphon oil or sell it or trade it on the black market, and that's a major concern that was pointed out by some of these leaders. I should also say that we had a lot of active-duty leaders that participated in the film, assistant secretaries of Defense, assistant secretary of the Navy, the Marine Corps colonel that, at the time, was running the Expeditionary Energy Office. So they identify these problems. Not all of them talk about it in terms of climate change, but the understanding is that if we can solve these energy challenges, that that directly addresses some of the climate problems.

Monica Trauzzi: Presidential candidate and senator Bernie Sanders says climate change remains the biggest threat to the U.S.'s national security, and since making that statement during a debate, he's received quite a bit of criticism, particularly from the right. So how do you make the case that climate change is a greater national security threat than something like terrorism or certain countries that we are looking at that have nuclear weapon potential?

Roger Sorkin: You know, there's a lot of evidence that shows that some of the recent instability that has arisen in the Middle East is a direct result of climate-related problems or environmental problems -- drought, lack of arable farmland. That creates unrest, indirectly perhaps, but there is a link. And unfortunately, in this political and media environment, you need a little extra time sometimes to connect the dots, and in the sort of news cycles that we have, it really doesn't allow for much deep discussion. And so if something is not provable in the moment, often people will look beyond it to think that, OK, well this is not a problem, but you really have to take a little bit of time and think, OK, let's say there's increased storms in a particular region. They are experiencing 100-year storms every five years or every two years. They can't grow food. Their aquifers are drying up. I mean, that is -- any military leader is going to tell you that it's a direct impact on the stability of a region which will then directly affect our national security as we're called to respond to it.

Monica Trauzzi: So as we look at today's situation with a very real possibility of a military intervention or response against ISIS, what are your greatest energy-related concerns with a potential conflict like that?

Roger Sorkin: I mean, I guess, you know, I would just echo what the military says, which is that the more we demand as a nation, the more we -- I mean, we are a fifth of the world's population and we use 20 percent of the world's oil. There's no way we're going to be able to supply ourselves that. I mean, that is -- it is an absolute misinformation anytime somebody says we're drilling at home, we're safe. I think that the biggest concern is that we rely so much on this single source product. We have to protect it, where it comes from, we have to stabilize regions that produce it, we have to do business with nations that don't share our values. So, you know, people say, well ISIS is barbaric. Well, frankly, the Saudi regime has been barbaric too, but they're considered an ally, and they're an ally because they have a lot of oil and they have a big influence over the oil markets. And so I think the longer we have this insatiable demand for oil, that is probably what's going to keep these problems front and center for us.

Monica Trauzzi: But you're not suggesting that we close ourselves off to trade with other countries.

Roger Sorkin: No, not at all. I mean, the way the military describes it is building an off-ramp from petroleum, and the concept of an off-ramp being that you have to get the cars safely off the highway. In this case, we have to get ourselves safely, in terms of our economic security, off of oil, and that means if it takes more decades than we would like, I mean, they are talking about it in terms of decades, but the point is to realize now that we have to get to work and work as quickly as we can to eventually wean ourselves off of oil and fossil fuels in general.

Monica Trauzzi: You've been showing this film here in town and around the country. What's the response been?

Roger Sorkin: It's been a really great response. It's the kind of response that I had hoped for, which is that conservatives will come up to me after the film, or people who are related to conservatives that come to the movie, and they say, "Well, my father watched this film. He's a Republican, he's a conservative, he doesn't buy in, so he thinks climate change is a liberal hoax, but he gets the idea that we have to get off of oil, at least for our operational security." And so that's an area where, when we talk about lives and money, we spend too much money protecting our oil and we lose too many people in the field who are dependent upon that oil to fight on our behalf. You know, there's one statistic that the Department of Defense cites, which is that one in 24 fuel convoys in Iraq -- in Afghanistan, rather, ended in a casualty. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year through the Department of Defense, through our taxes, to help keep the oil choke points open. So those are the issues that conservatives can really get behind. You know, the idea is not to preach to the choir in terms of climate change here, but to really find what's that common ground so that we can depoliticize these issues because they directly impact our national security.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it there. It's an interesting perspective on the broader issue. Thank you for coming on the show.

Roger Sorkin: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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