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We've gotten used to warnings about climate change from scientists and politicians. Today, a panel of retired three and four-star admirals and generals is warning that global climate warning could create serious threats to national security. Retired General Anthony Zinni was on the panel and joined us to talk about it. Hello, thanks for joining us.

General ANTHONY ZINNI (U.S. Marine Corps, Retired): Hello. Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: What sets the military apart from civilian policy makers and scientists in thinking about climate change?

Gen. ZINNI: Well, we obviously think about the security implications; the kinds of things the military might be involved in in terms of humanitarian and disaster relief missions, what might be the effects on our military forces, military bases around the world, that sort of thing; what might draw us in the conflict. We obviously were briefed on what I think the preponderance of the scientific community feels might happen - loss of land, loss of natural resources, demands on things like water that may exacerbate or cause conflict, mass migrations of population - all these sorts of things that could end up having some sort of effect on our security interests around the world.

MONTAGNE: General Zinni, you have been commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. There's an area that's of traditional concern. In this report, the Middle East jumps out as a place with plenty of oil but scarce water.

Gen. ZINNI: Yes. I mean, I always felt that the liquid of potential conflict for the future was water, not oil. There's very limited water resources, as we all know. There's what we call hydraulic societies like Egypt that are totally reliant on one source of water, the sources in the Nile. There are other places that have limited arable land and irrigatable land.

And when you think of all these fragile societies that have such a high dependence on a very limited resource, even looking at the Israeli-Palestinian situation which I was intimately involved in - you know, the limited water resources, the danger in aquifers that are drying up, becoming saline - if you look at the sort of the range of possibilities usually based upon degrees of global warming, areas that could be most affected, you know, even a small change of two to three degrees in one direction could be the difference between a manageable problem to a catastrophe.

MONTAGNE: One of the admirals, actually, in this report makes the point that climate change and terrorism are potentially very much bound together.

Gen. ZINNI: Yeah. I think if you look at the problem that we're facing with extremists - terrorists, if you will - what has fed this sort of ugly threat has been disillusioned and angry youth, usually disillusioned and angry because of some political, economic or social set of conditions. If the environment changed and exacerbates those into a greater extent, it sort of feeds in to the extremists and their ability to recruit supporters.

MONTAGNE: You know, the report suggests that the military could take the lead in developing new technology. What are you thinking of there?

Gen. ZINNI: Well, let me give you a simple example. You know, we obviously have the kinds of facilities that can take water resources and purify them or desalinate the water resources. What we need to look at - how we could do that more efficiently; more effectively leverage technology: Is there going to be a big demand for that? Are we're going to find fresh water resources so depleted in parts of the world that we might have to come in and deal with that? Is there a way to make that technologically more efficient and more effective and maybe even more affordable? You know, so those are the kinds of things that are worth looking at.

I mean, there's some other interesting aspects to this, too. You know, the Arctic could become a transportable sea. I mean, what are the implications of that, of significant trade routes and the need for, obviously, the kind of naval presence or forces in places where we haven't had them before. That may change.

MONTAGNE: Can you compare the risk that the world is facing right now in terms of climate change? Can it be compared to anything else in the military experience?

Gen. ZINNI: Well, I think there's one way to look at it in that, you know, the world undergoes changes. Sometimes it undergoes changes because of political conditions, because of military conditions. We saw three major changes in the last century - at the end of the First World War, at the end of the Second World War, and the end of the Cold War - and these have created entirely different environments. I think we need to look at this as maybe another significant change in the reordering of the world. I mean, could we see the rise of new powers, the effect on existing powers that might reduce their influence? Could we see changes in the world that restructure political alliances? We've always had to adjust to these reorderings.

MONTAGNE: Has the U.S. military done what one might call war games on this, any planning or military exercises?

Gen. ZINNI: Well, not that I know of. I think that's one reason for the study. To my knowledge, this is the first real look at this.

MONTAGNE: And you're retired, but you're also very senior when you were on active duty. Do you think that this report is going to have an effect?

Gen. ZINNI: Well, I hope it certainly draws attention to the potential problems. I think it's accepted there'll be some degree of climate change, but if you want to begin to effect how bad that might be or how we can best manage it, you need to start taking actions now. Militaries like to plan, they like to have head's up on what might be coming down. They like to anticipate threats and changes and things that affect their mission. And, obviously, they require resources to do them, too. So I think it's worthwhile for us to look at. I mean, this may be decades away in its worst impact, but I think you need to start planning about it and anticipating it.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Gen. ZINNI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: As we said, General Anthony Zinni is a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. The report he coauthored, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," is at npr.org.

And that idea about the Pentagon holding war games on global warming - there's a bipartisan bill before the Senate that would require just that. It's expected to pass.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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