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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice on Climate Change and National Security at Stanford University - As Prepared for Delivery

National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice
Remarks on Climate Change and National Security
Stanford University

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hello, Stanford!  It’s great to be back.  Thank you, President Hennessy, for your very kind words and for welcoming me today.  And, President Hennessy, on behalf of Stanford alums everywhere, thank you for your years of dedicated service to this great institution that we love so much.  It will be very hard to fill your shoes. 

Now, the last time I spoke at Stanford, it was to a massive audience at graduation over in the stadium.  I am assuming you all will be just as enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit more sober.  I do miss the costumes though.

I am ashamed to admit: it’s been almost 30 years since I graduated.  But, every time I visit, the memories come rushing back.  I met my husband here.  I made friends for life here.  I enrolled in courses and took up causes that ultimately shaped the direction of my career.  I even had the dubious fortune to witness “The Play” first hand.  That was my freshman year.  It was unbelievably traumatic. 

I love this place.  Where else but Stanford does your time start with a Band Run and end with a Wacky Walk?  Where else but Stanford can you travel to Narnia, the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and Mars on your bike?  Where else but Stanford does the sentence: “I finished my HumBio and SymSys work so let’s hop in the Claw or maybe just hit up the CoHo to grab some EANABs” even make sense?   

Learning all those acronyms is actually pretty good training for government work.  And, if you look around the halls of the National Security Council today, you’ll see that Stanford’s training pays off.  Our Senior Director for Energy and Climate Change—Stanford ‘99.  Our Senior Director for Resilience Policy, who helps communities adapt to climate change—Stanford ‘78.  My Senior Advisor and my Speechwriter—both of them Stanford ‘05.  And, of course, the former NSC Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia and our former Ambassador to Moscow – Stanford ‘86 – my good friend and classmate, Professor McFaul.  So when I decided to give a speech about how climate change impacts our national security, we knew where to come. 

Our world has changed dramatically since I left Stanford.  And not just the fact that there’s no more Meyer Library.  When I was a student, the men who held my job—and back then, they were all men—had one overarching concern:  the Soviet Union.  National security centered on winning the Cold War and averting nuclear Armageddon.  Climate change wasn’t on the radar.  But that didn’t mean people hadn’t begun to sound the alarm. 

In 1985—fall quarter of my senior year—scientists from around the world met to express concern that a buildup of greenhouse gasses, and specifically carbon dioxide, would result in “a rise of global mean temperature…greater than any in man’s history.”  By 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its first report, detailing how a warming climate would affect our ecosystem.  There have since been four more reports, each with more sophisticated science to support ever more dire warnings.

So, it’s not that we didn’t see climate change coming.  It’s that for the better part of three decades we failed, repeatedly, to treat this challenge with the seriousness and the urgency it deserves.  As an international community, we succumbed to divisive global politics that set developing countries against industrialized nations and stymied international consensus on climate change. 

At home, we succumbed to divisive domestic politics that allowed entrenched interests to push a calculated agenda of doubt, denial, and delay.  And, we focused, quite understandably, on other critical national security priorities—from coming to grips with globalization, halting proliferation, and above all, keeping the American people safe in a post-9/11 world. 

Like my predecessors, as National Security Advisor, I deal daily with the full range of global challenges that demand American leadership: countering ISIL, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups; addressing crises in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan; opposing Russian aggression against Ukraine; beating back the Ebola epidemic; confronting increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks.  In just the past few months, we’ve reached an historic deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, begun a new chapter of engagement with the Cuban people, negotiated the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership to support American jobs, and set a new agenda of sustainable development goals to end the injustice of extreme poverty.   

We are seizing opportunities and meeting challenges head on.  And, today, we face no greater long-term challenge than climate change, an advancing menace that imperils so many of the other things we hope to achieve.  That’s why, under President Obama, we have put combatting climate change at the very center of our national security agenda.

The science is not up for debate.  I know you are not the crowd that needs to be convinced—you’re living it.  Here at Stanford, you were almost close enough to smell the wildfires.  Some redwoods and eucalyptus trees around campus are dying from drought.  As for those who remain unconvinced—I’d suggest they are either not paying attention, or they’re not living on the same planet as the rest of us. 

In the past 15 years, we’ve had 14 of the hottest years on record—which is exactly the kind of change those climate scientists back in 1985 suggested we could be seeing by now.  Last year, 2014, was the hottest.  And, scientists say there’s a 97 percent chance that we’ll set a new record again this year.  The seas have risen about eight inches over the past 100 years, and they’re now rising at roughly double the rate they did in the 20th century.  Arctic sea ice is shrinking.  Permafrost is thawing.  The Antarctic ice shelf is breaking up faster than anticipated.  Storms are getting stronger.  Extreme precipitation events are becoming more frequent.  Heat waves are growing more intense.  The bottom line is this:  we’re on a collision course with climate impacts that have inescapable implications for our national security.  Let me sketch out a few of them.

First, climate change is a direct threat to the prosperity and safety of the American people.  We’re losing billions of dollars in failed crops due to extreme drought.  Millions of acres of forest have been lost to fire.  In addition to longer fire seasons and drier summers here in the West, on the East Coast we’re seeing record rain events.  Last week in the Carolinas, unprecedented amounts of rain fell—enough in just five days to put a serious dent in California’s multi-year drought.  And, while we can’t say that climate change is the direct cause of any specific weather event, these are exactly the trends that we expect to see more of, if climate trends continue on their current trajectory.

Along our coasts, we’ve got thousands of miles of roads and railways, 100 energy facilities, communities of millions—all of which are vulnerable to sea-level rise.  Remember Super Storm Sandy—how it hobbled America’s largest city and plunged everyone south of 34th Street into darkness for days?  We saw a cascading failure of infrastructure.  Water flooded an electrical substation, and backup power was either flooded or insufficient.  Over 6,000 patients had to be evacuated from powerless hospitals down stairwells.  Transportation broke down, because you can’t pump gas without electricity.  Wastewater treatment plants shut down.  One critical sector pulled down other vital systems.  And, with warmer oceans and higher seas, New York City will have to be prepared for Sandy-level flooding to happen every 25 years. 

When I visited Alaska with President Obama last month, we saw rapidly disappearing glaciers and a native community whose island home is already being washed away.  The question for them is not if they will have to abandon their traditional homes and way of life, but when.  These are real threats to our homeland security, and they’re happening now. 

Second, climate change will impact our national defense.  We’ve got military installations that are imperiled by the same rising seas as our civilian infrastructure.  Here in the western United States, ranges where our troops train are jeopardized by heat and drought.  In fact, this summer we had to cancel some training exercises, because it got too hot. 

Climate change means operating in more severe weather conditions, increasing the wear on both service members and their equipment.  There will also be new demands on our military.  A thawing Arctic means 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline and new sea lanes to secure.  Around the world, more intense storms—like the massive typhoon that decimated part of the Philippines two years ago—will mean more frequent humanitarian relief missions.  And, our military will have to deal with increased instability and conflict around the world. 

That’s a third major national security concern, because climate change is what the Department of Defense calls a “threat multiplier”—which means, even if climate change isn’t the spark that directly ignites conflict, it increases the size of the powder keg.  A changing climate makes it harder for farmers to grow crops, fishermen to catch enough fish, herders to tend their livestock—it makes it harder for countries to feed their people.  And humans, like every other species on this planet, scatter when their environment can no longer sustain them.  As the Earth heats up, many countries will experience growing competition for reduced food and water resources.  Rather than stay and starve, people will fight for their survival. 

All of these consequences are exacerbated in fragile, developing states that are least equipped to handle strains on their resources.  In Nigeria, prolonged drought contributed to the instability and dissatisfaction that Boko Haram exploits.  The genocide in Darfur began, in part, as a drought-driven conflict.  In the years prior to civil war breaking out in Syria, that country also experienced its worst drought on record.  Farming families moved en masse into urban centers, increasing political unrest and further priming the country for conflict.  In fact, last year, a Stanford research group determined that a rise in temperature is linked with a statistically significant increase in the frequency of conflict.  There is already an unholy nexus between human insecurity, humanitarian crises, and state failure—climate change makes it that much worse.   

Around the world, more than 100 million people now live less than one meter above sea level—including entire island countries in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.  Consider the impacts—to the global economy and to our shared security—when rising seas begin to swallow nations whole. 

Fourth, we face spreading diseases and mounting threats to global health.  Already, more mosquito-borne diseases are spreading from the tropics to temperate zones as climates warm.  Viruses like West Nile and Chikungunya are growing more prevalent in the United States.  India is currently in the grip of the worst dengue fever outbreak in years.  Livestock diseases are expanding northward into Europe.  These advancing diseases cost billions of dollars a year to treat and contain, not to mention the immeasurable cost in human lives and suffering.   

Finally, we cannot dismiss the worst-case predictions of catastrophic, irreparable damage to our environment.  If the Greenland ice sheet melts, seas could rise not just the one to four feet many scientists predict, but eventually as much as 20 feet.  If the oceans continue to acidify, it will devastate the marine biome—destroying coral reefs, compromising the food chain, and imperiling a major source of protein for 3 billion people worldwide. 

These aren’t marginal threats.  They put at risk the health and safety of people on every continent. 

But I’m not here today to preach doom and gloom.  I’m here because we’re at an inflection point—a moment where consensus is building, and 30 years of foot-dragging can be replaced by a sprint to a low-carbon future. 

Attitudes are shifting.  Behaviors are changing.  We are embracing the necessity to lead, to innovate, to solve this problem.  President Obama has elevated climate change to a defining imperative of both our foreign and domestic policies.   He understands our responsibility to future generations.  Because, in the President’s words, “there is such a thing as being too late.”  We have to act now to mitigate the effects of climate change by rapidly reducing our carbon emissions.  That is the only way we will avert disaster scenarios, even as we must adapt to those impacts we can no longer avoid. 

Over the past six years, action has accelerated on all fronts.  Green technology is becoming more affordable and widespread.  Over the weekend, I visited the Tesla factory in the East Bay.  Now, that’s not yet what anyone would call affordable—but the technology they and so many other innovative companies are pioneering is helping change the way we think about clean energy, electric vehicles, and the infrastructure we need to support them.  We’ve even got an electric car charging station on West Executive Avenue now, right outside my window in the West Wing.

Today—in part because of historic investments made by the Obama administration—the United States harnesses three times as much electricity from wind and twenty times as much from the sun as we did in 2008.  By 2025, we’ll have nearly doubled the fuel efficiency of our cars.  We’ve set new conservation standards for our commercial buildings.  With the energy we’ll save thanks to more efficient appliances, we could power an additional 30 million homes.  All told, our new efficiency standards will reduce our carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons by 2030.  And, over the past several years, we have shown that we can successfully bring down the rate of emissions and grow our economy at the same time.

When President Obama issued our first ever Climate Action Plan two years ago, it invigorated America’s domestic action on climate change.  The President’s Clean Power Plan will reduce, for the first time, the amount of carbon existing power plants put into the atmosphere—32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.  That’s the most significant step ever taken by a president to combat climate change domestically.  We’ve developed strategies to reduce our methane emissions and potent greenhouse gases known as HFCs.  And, we’ve created plans to manage the increased risk of floods, droughts, and wildfires and to improve resilience in our communities at all levels. 

Obviously, to truly meet this this challenge, we need the rest of the world to act with us.  We’re all in this together.  Yet, American leadership under President Obama has been crucial to galvanizing many countries—particularly the major carbon emitters—to step up to the plate and move beyond the ideological shackles of the past. 

One of the critical advancements of the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals is the recognition that waiting to act on climate change will only make it harder to reduce extreme poverty.  The U.S. has been equally clear that we view our climate and development strategies as mutually reinforcing.  Last year, President Obama ordered that all our international development projects be designed from the outset with climate impacts in mind.  That’s because we know our efforts to strengthen food security won’t succeed, if farmers aren’t planting drought- and salt-resistant seeds.  In fact, left unaddressed, climate change could very well undo many of the development gains the world has made.

So, the United States is again leading the charge.  We’re helping countries around the world improve their resilience to climate change.  Our climate assistance already reaches more than 120 nations, and our $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund is our latest commitment to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries tackle climate change.

Seven weeks from now, world leaders will gather in Paris to finalize a strong and comprehensive post-2020 agreement for climate action.  This isn’t our first or even our fifteenth attempt.  Paris is the twenty-first gathering of the international community to address climate change.  But after two decades of negotiations, Paris is our best opportunity to shift our approach toward climate change permanently and to embrace cooperative solutions to a truly global problem. 

Thanks to concerted and sustained American leadership, I believe we are in a position to achieve a meaningful agreement in Paris.  Last year, the United States and China—the world’s two largest economies and two largest emitters—surprised the world with an historic announcement, which broke the long-standing barriers separating the way developing and developed economies approach climate change.  Both our countries set ambitious new emissions targets.  The United States committed to reduce our emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, doubling the pace at which we are cutting emissions now.  For the first time, China committed to peak its total emissions around 2030 and to set ambitious targets for rolling out clean energy.  And, last month, during President Xi’s state visit, both our countries unveiled concrete plans for achieving those targets. 

Strong U.S. leadership has spurred other nations to make bold commitments as well.  We’ve now secured ambitious post-2020 targets from more than 140 countries representing more than 85 percent of global emissions.  Major emitters like the EU, Brazil, and Mexico have been joined by small island nations and least developed countries, all pledging to do their part. 

Of course, setting ambitious targets is essential, but it’s not nearly enough.  Paris must deliver a long-term framework that ratchets down future emissions over time—one where all countries commit to act, consistent with their circumstances, and where strong transparency and accountability measures apply to everyone.  Paris must also support poor countries as they continue developing on a low-carbon trajectory.  We’re already more than 60 percent of the way toward meeting our goal of mobilizing $100 billion in public and private sector climate financing for developing countries by 2020.  That’s important progress, but we’ve got more to do, including in Washington.

For so many reasons, it’s critical that Congress pass a budget that reverses sequestration.  One reason is that we must continue to adequately fund our multilateral climate initiatives—including our commitment to the Green Climate Fund—and demonstrate the responsible American leadership that this issue demands. 

Paris is the proximate milestone in a mission that will be passed from my generation to the next and the next.  So, let’s fast-forward a few decades, to 30 years from now when one of you sitting in the audience today might have my job.  What will you say to a room full of students with their whole futures ahead of them? 

I hope you will be able to tell them that you remember when the world finally came together to preserve the one Earth we all must share.  I hope you will have only distant memories of the stale but pitched battles over basic science and established facts.  And, most importantly, I hope you will have a plan to chart the next chapter of American global leadership on climate change.

In the meantime, we need you.  Among you, perhaps, are the innovators who will develop the green technologies that will make clean energy universally available to a future world population of 9 billion people and that will eventually put the last internal combustion engine in a museum.  Among you are the engineers who will bolster climate resilience in our communities here at home—strengthened sea walls, protected and restored coastal wetlands, smarter infrastructure.  Among you are the agricultural scientists who will pioneer another green revolution, developing seeds adapted for specific climate and soil conditions and advanced micro-forecasting techniques that will allow farmers to adjust their crops field by field.    

We know you are uniquely up to the challenge.  After all—where else but Stanford can you study with experts like Chris Field and Liz Hadly, who are deepening our understanding of climate change impacts?  Where else but Stanford can you discover that mealworms could be the answer to our problem with plastic refuse, and that their waste can even be used as compost for crops?  Where else but Stanford can you develop the problem-solving and advocacy skills to litigate, legislate, and negotiate the policies that will define the future? 

So, today, I’d like to leave you with a charge:  put your Stanford educations to work to help us meet this critical global challenge.  Find ways to fight climate change.  Find the work you are passionate about, and make this part of it. Because, just as President Obama and I have a responsibility to you—to try to make sure the world you inherit is not plagued by problems left too long, by threats grown too large—you have a responsibility to those who will follow you. 

You have been blessed with great capacity to make a difference in this world, and here, you are being given the tools and the training to put it to work.  This is a place where you can dedicate yourself—your brilliance, your creativity—to transforming the most vexing problems into unforeseen opportunities.  I know you can do it, and I can’t wait to see the future that you will help build.  Thank you.