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​Political and cultural commentator David Brooks and former Defense Secretary and retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis appeared in conversation at a Sept. 6, 2019, book event held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which was co-presented by the school and the bookstore Politics and Prose. Staff photo by Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory.

Climate change’s ability to spur social conflicts and geological shifts across the globe should concern both the Pentagon and the public at large, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at a Sept. 6 book talk in Washington, D.C.

While the retired Marine Corps general said he used to avoid conversations about what might be driving the planet’s rising temperatures “because I was military,” he argued the Pentagon must confront the issue.

“Let me talk for a moment to those who are skeptical about climate change,” Mattis, who left the Defense Department in December, told an audience during a memoir tour talk at George Washington University. “Even if it might not be the case, if there is a chance that it’s climate change and it can be as potentially catastrophic as some think it could be, wouldn’t it be good to have an insurance policy?”

Mattis said a plan introduced by the Climate Leadership Council—which would levy a fee on entities whose mines, wells, or ports emit carbon dioxide and return those proceeds to individual Americans—makes sense.

He laid out examples of climate effects the military needs to consider. For one, melting sea ice has created “a new open body of water that, from a military point of view, we have to deal with,” he said.

"To me, this is just science,” he said. "I’m not going to get into the politics of it.”

Mattis’s concern echoes the Pentagon’s updated Arctic strategy document, released in June, which identified the region’s “changing physical environment” as a key security issue.

“Diminishing Arctic sea ice is opening new shipping lanes and increasing access to natural resources during the summer months,” the report said. “If the warming trends continue at the current rate, Arctic-wide sea ice loss may result in nearly ice-free late summers by the 2040s.”

Air Force leaders visited the Arctic in April to better understand the area’s operational challenges and learn how to better addressing the region’s shifting security dynamics, the service said in a May 1 release. Gen. C.Q. Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said in July that the US must prepare to compete with Russia and China at the poles.

Lawmakers are looking to the Arctic as well. A provision in the Senate’s version of the 2020 defense policy bill requires DOD to report on how “Northern Tier” bases like Minot and Grand Forks AFBs, N.D., can further American interests in the Arctic.

Mattis, who has long pointed to climate threats, also used the role of drought as a driver of unrest in the Middle East to illustrate how Earth’s changing climate has affected national security—namely, in terms of economic challenges that can drive the flow of refugees across international borders.

He argued the Syrian civil war could be linked to drought that drove hard-pressed farmers into the cities. Climate’s role in the Syrian conflict has been debated for years.

“Rents went up, not enough seats in the classroom, people were angry, a fruit seller sets himself on fire in Tunis, and the anger just comes through the Arab world,” he said. “You can draw at least some conclusions that this has indirectly fed into much of the discontent.”

Mattis encouraged the audience to focus on “defining the problem in a way that is irrefutable” enough to sway 80 percent of people.

“I think we live in such a skeptical age today that that’s probably a magnificent number if you can reach it, but then we’ve got to do something about it,” he said.

Recently, the Air Force’s considerations about climate change have focused on how it might impact installations through severe weather and atmospheric shifts, in the wake of a Category 5 hurricane that devastated Tyndall AFB, Fla. in 2018. The subject has also come up in military readiness and facilities discussions on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, lawmakers called on the Pentagon to resubmit a report on climate change that failed to include certain required information.