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US General: EU Leaders must pressure Trump over Climate Change Scepticism

15 December, 2016
James Crisp

[This article originally appeared on]

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 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.

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.

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.

[This article originally appeared on]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Change

Global Issues
North America


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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