Addressing the threat of climate change will require the urgency with which heart attack victims are treated and the determination that helped the United States land a man on the moon, retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn said at a public forum in Charleston.
"We are in an emergency," McGinn said. "This is the golden hour for the United States."
McGinn is on a multistate speaking tour with former U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., aimed at explaining how climate change poses a threat to national security, as first outlined by a panel of retired four-star and three-star admirals and generals in a 2007 report.
"This has a lot more to do with national security than with the future of polar bears," McGinn said Thursday afternoon at a town hall meeting at The Citadel.
Climate change, driven by man-made fossil fuel emissions, could cause global instability marked by competition for basic resources, such as water and arable land, and mass migrations of people, McGinn said. And those conditions could spawn military conflict, he said.
"Conditions that deny people the essentials of life ... are a breeding ground for fanaticism and terrorism," said McGinn, citing Darfur and Somalia.
McGinn commanded the U.S. Third Fleet in the 1990s and was deputy chief of Naval Operations, Warfare Requirements and Programs.
Warner, who left the Senate in January, was secretary of the Navy in the 1970s and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"This piece of (climate change) legislation that is working its way through Congress is the key to it," Warner told about 70 people at the forum. "All eyes will be on our country."
David Stoney, of McClellanville, attended the forum and said he found it "well-balanced and appropriate to the seriousness of the situation."
McGinn and Warner said the nation needs to focus on developing clean energy, which would both reduce dependence on foreign oil and reduce climate-changing emissions. The Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate organized their speaking tour.
By focusing on energy independence issues and security threats, environmental groups have hoped to sway voters and lawmakers to tackle climate change out of concern about rising sea levels, the threat to wildlife and general harm to the planet.
A bipartisan poll of South Carolina voters in 2007 found that a majority of Republicans polled did not think, as most scientist do, that human activities such as burning oil and coal are the primary cause of global warming.
The same poll, however, found broad support for cleaner energy.