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Climate change is a ‘national security threat’ to U.S.

Naval Station Norfolk. Photo by U.S. Navy Photographer Ernest R. Scott

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) addressed the Northwestern community last Thursday and warned that we should think of climate change as a national security threat and an existential challenge to the well-being and success of the United States.

“We tend to think of national security as … how many tanks and guns and helicopters you have but really the threats to our nation are ones that are also economic that … have to do with climate change,” Duckworth said.

“An easy example, if we do nothing about climate change, 100 United States bases will be underwater within the next 30 years,” she added.

Sen. Duckworth also sees climate change as a harbinger of future conflict. “Droughts in Africa cause famine, which causes population migrations, which then leads to conflicts that we’re going to get pulled into,” she said.

The senator’s remarks were part of the inaugural Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs Fireside Chat Series, which invites leaders from government, academia, industry and civil society to share their bold visions for addressing pressing global challenges. The series is moderated by Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern Buffett and associate provost for global affairs at Northwestern.

“We were thrilled to host Sen. Duckworth and have her provide a roadmap for our students and innovators as they work on solutions to the climate crisis,” Riles said. “I am hopeful that our work at Northwestern Buffett, including our work to address the disproportionate impacts of environmental challenges, can contribute to the senator’s efforts to address climate issues affecting underserved communities.”

The aim of the Buffett Fireside Chat Series is to provide a forum for leading thinkers of our time to share their perspectives on and critical analyses of pressing global issues.

This year, Sen. Duckworth authored the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, which passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 89-2, and was included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Duckworth was able to secure provisions that will help rebuild the nation’s water infrastructure, provide $15 billion for lead pipe replacement, $4 billion to address PFAS in drinking water, among others. She was also able to create a $1.75 billion fund to ensure transit stations are accessible to people with disabilities.

Sen. Duckworth said that protecting water quality is a federal government responsibility.

“This is just as important as anything else, as maintaining the nation's readiness for military defense, we must maintain the ability of Americans to have access to clean, safe drinking water,” she said.

She emphasized that it’s also an environmental justice issue since too often the costs of renovating water systems are out of reach for poor and rural communities that don’t have the tax base to pay for them.

On nuclear energy, Sen. Duckworth said that it “will absolutely play an essential role in getting our nation to cut carbon emissions on the scale that we need to mitigate the consequences of climate change.” She added that we have to address nuclear waste and bear in mind the negative impact it has on communities where that waste is sent.

Reflecting on COP26 — the climate change summit held in Glasgow last month — the senator said that communities bearing the brunt of a warming planet should be brought to the table as more investments are poured into renewable energy.

She also said that universities can become case studies for policymakers by showing how to run campus operations sustainably.

“College campuses operate like small towns with large emission and consumption rates, providing a real unique opportunity to become examples for best practices that can be used to influence policy at the federal and local levels,” she said, adding that universities are also “vital hubs of research and information” with the capacity to teach thousands of students innovative ways to address climate change in the future.

Northwestern at COP26

Northwestern University last month sent delegates to the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The delegates were able to observe climate negotiations firsthand, look at the inclusion of Indigenous voices and meet with U7+ Alliance universities to further cement collaborations on environmental issues. Last October, Northwestern rallied 29 universities from 12 countries to commit to lowering emissions and enhancing access to climate and sustainability courses for students.

Northwestern is also the first university in the United States to be consecutively awarded Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2018 and 2019. The University also earned the Energy Star Sustained Excellence award in 2020 and 2021 for continued leadership in energy efficiency and energy conservation.

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