US general: EU leaders must pressure Trump over climate change scepticism

Trump on the campaign trail. [Gage Skidmore/Flickr]

European Union leaders must heap pressure on Donald Trump over his climate change scepticism because global warming poses a global security threat, a retired US general has told euractiv.com.

Stephen Cheney also revealed that, since Trump’s shock election, green groups had “gone to the mattresses” – gangster slang for going to war – but admitted no one knows what the President-Elect will do next.

General Stephen Cheney (retired) is the CEO of the American Security Project, which analyses climate change from a national security perspective. Cheney, who has more than 30 years experience in the marines, spoke to EURACTIV news editor James Crisp about the security threat posed by climate change, and the recent election of climate-sceptic Donald Trump as US president. You can read an edited transcript below or listen to the full interview on SoundCloud here.

What is the American Security Project?

We take on topical issues from a national security perspective. Perhaps highest among them is climate change but we also take on issues such as energy security, nuclear security counterterrorism, public diplomacy.

They put eight flag officers, three and four star, two from each service, recently retired, onto the board. The thought was to have them address these issues, climate change, from a strictly non-partisan perspective. Hopefully we can appeal to those on the far right and say these are the national security concerns of what is going on.

We understand what Greenpeace and CR Club and World Wildlife Foundation are saying but we are not into that. We are not into saving polar bears here, we’re into saving people, we’re into saving our country and we’re into saving the world from what is going to happen with climate change.

What is going to happen?

The reason I am here in Brussels is that there is a movie that’s been put out called Age of Consequences. There are examples in that film of what can happen with climate change and its consequences across the world. Most prominent among those are the Arab Spring and Syria. You would not ordinarily associate those with climate change.

I don’t.

When they had the huge fires in Russia in 2010, they decimated the wheat crops. Putin put an embargo on exporting wheat. This filtrated down to the Middle East and the food prices increased in some cases by at least 300%. This is what we call an “accelerant instability”. When you saw what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, there were riots and they didn’t like the government. But a lot of that was economic-related. They weren’t receiving the subsidies or the food that they wanted and that fed into this and helped drive it.

In Syria, 2006-2010 was the largest drought Syria has had in its history. It drove the farmers and those dependent on the agrarian community into the cities and, in particular, into Aleppo. Many of the thousands you see in Aleppo today used to be in the hinterlands, farming, but now they can’t. There’s no water. Unemployed, unable to eat, unable to care for their family, they became a target for Assad and they became a recruiting tool for ISIS.

How strong is the link between climate change and terrorism?

I’ll give you another example – Boko Haram. When you look at a map of Lake Chad in Nigeria now and a map from 20 years ago, it has lost almost 90% of its water. All the people that lived around Lake Chad and that were dependent on the fisheries there had to move. They didn’t have their livelihood or a way to look after themselves and Boko Haram stepped in.

Where you have instability and migration and where people can’t take care of themselves, that is why terrorists are going to take hold.

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President-Elect Donald Trump has said climate change is a hoax and was invented by the Chinese. He is also part of a more insular, less global wave in politics. Where does that leave you?

He did recently say that maybe man’s contribution to CO2 in atmosphere may be contributing to climate change. As far as we, and scientists, are concerned that is a fact. You can look at any graph you want to look at. He’s starting to hedge away from his campaign rhetoric but I have no idea what he is going to do when he becomes president, we really don’t.

He’s hired a climate-sceptic to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency…

It would be a little problematic if that proves to be the case. My point is with Trump, we just don’t know and we won’t know until it occurs.

I’ve told my board and my constituents that now is the time to mobilise the argument behind the national security perspective on climate change and pitch it to him in a rational perspective.

We need to keep pushing it in other countries of the world and, in particular, the EU, the G7, G20. Let their heads of state tell him that climate change is on the top of their list and if it is not at the top, it is right up there with terrorism and migration. They need to tell him that climate change is right up there and that the US, as a major polluter, needs to do something about it. That can get the message through to Trump.

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How are your former colleagues in the military reacting to the prospect of President Trump? With mixed feelings?

He has changed his tune. For a guy who said the generals were reduced to rubble and he knew better than the generals, he is now taking a lot of advice from generals.

What about the Gold Star family, the Muslim family whose son was killed serving in the army? He was incredibly rude to them.

Well, I took personal offence at that. As did my contemporaries who are still on active duty.

He has turned around and said he will increase the marine corps by 12 battalions. That’s almost a 50% increase so the marines are going “yeah, we will take this!”.

Those at a responsible level are asking who is paying. You don’t invent a battalion overnight. You have to recruit from the bottom up, it takes time, and you’ve got to get the funding. And the funding is not going to be there.  He’s promised more planes, more ships. These are all grandiose promises that make you feel good but, in my opinion, none of them are going to come to fruition.

He has pandered to that constituency in the same way he has to the coal miners in West Virginia. “I am going to open up the coal mines, I am going to open up the steel mills in Pennsylvania”. Really?

Is he going to do that if it doesn’t make business sense?

He’s a business guy. There have been more jobs in US created in renewables than in oil, gas and coal combined. You’d think as a business guy he would see that opportunity to create employment. The problem is whether those jobs will be in the Michigan manufacturing area, the West Virginia coal area or Pennsylvania steel area.  He was catering for that constituency and they voted overwhelmingly for him but that’s got to shift. But we just don’t know what Trump is going to do.

It just seems that anyone in Washington is just scrabbling around without the foggiest idea of how to deal with someone so unpredictable…

The phrase I used recently to a friend of mine was that we were going to the mattresses.

Like in The Godfather? When the mafia families go to war?

That’s correct. Maybe our groups got a little complacent thinking that Hillary is coming in and everything is going to be wonderful. Maybe now is the time to blow it out and explain why you think this is important in rational terms and not in a political partisan way and throw it on the table. And if he doesn’t listen – well, too bad and so sad.

If he gets that push in the US but is also pushed from heads of state and, in particular, the EU, if they say we have come a long way now, particularly with COP21 and COP22, we can make this work. And you can be a part of it. But if you are not going to lead, we are going to lead.

How about if the EU told Trump something like “If you stay in the Paris Agreement, we will pay what we have promised into NATO”?

That’s an interesting poker game to play. We all know the NATO arguments and I am not going into that. But he is a dealmaker.

When it comes down to showing your cards – he is going to defend you under Article 5. Anything else is beyond comprehension. To me that is an iron clad agreement and it is not a card he is going to play.

Do Americans believe climate change is a threat?

When you go to the US, a lot of it becomes a “it’s not my backyard thing”. My organisation went on a tour of the US, 20 cities, and we went to Pittsburgh – what do they care about climate change? Well Pittsburgh is at the confluence of three rivers. They have had multiple floods and the floods are getting worse. If you can explain it in those terms, then they begin to think maybe there is something to this.

Do they need a disaster to happen to them before they take the threat seriously?

I hate to say it but in some cases that is true. It is going to impact everyone at some point. In the US, the hottest year on record was last year, the year before was also the hottest year on record, the hottest decade on record was the last ten years. I can tell you all the farmers, even on the Rust Belt in the Mid West, are recognising that it is heating up and getting warmer. That impacts existing crops, what you can grow in the future, and infestation.

What President Trump could mean for energy and climate policy

Before Donald Trump was elected America’s new president in yesterday’s elections (8 November), experts told EURACTIV.com that his presidency would have a corrosive effect on global and EU climate and energy policy.

Further Reading

How Trump can quit the Paris Agreement

The idea that the Paris Agreement will survive the election of Donald Trump is politically naïve, writes Klaus Dingwerth.

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