Starving polar bears and bleached coral reefs are often the face of climate change today, but what many people do not realize is that climate change also threatens national security. Members of the U.S. national security community have been studying the impacts of climate change, namely sea level rise, and the associated threats to our military installations and missions. The results of their studies were compiled into three reports that were discussed at this week’s first annual Climate and National Security Forum. The forum consisted of three panels with several authors from each report serving on the respective panels.
The first panel included retired officials from each branch of the armed services, including COL President Rear Admiral Jon White. The report “Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission,” explains that the coastline stability that the military needs to safely carry out missions is “set to change dramatically due to sea level rise and storm surge.” If the risks associated with sea level rise and related extreme weather events are not mitigated, there will be serious consequences in terms of the military being able to safely and efficiently execute its missions. Lt. General John Castellaw (United States Marine Corps, ret.) gave a real-life example of the risk both service members and civilians face on the Marshall Islands, a Pacific atoll that supports U.S. defense operations. None of the islands in the atoll are more than six feet above sea level, and those six feet are already being compromised today. White posed his concern a different way, asking “what Navy bases aren’t going to be dramatically impacted by sea level rise?”
The report has eight recommendations to address the risks brought on by climate change: 1) continuously identify and build capacity to address infrastructural, operational and strategic risks, 2) integrate climate impact scenarios and projections into regular planning cycles, 3) make climate-related decisions only after considering the highest risk level projections, 4) game out catastrophic scenarios in planning, 5) work with international counterparts at key coastal bases abroad, 6) track trends in climate impacts as uncertainty levels are reduced, 7) maintain close collaboration with adjacent civilian communities, and 8) continue to invest in improvements in climate data. White stated that climate change will be implemented in all military planning, as it is now essential for national security.
During the panel discussion, moderator Ms. Sherri Goodman (Public Policy Fellow, Wilson Center; member, Center for Climate and Security’s Advisory Board) noted that sea level rise is occurring faster than predicted, as is the melting of Arctic ice, and asked the experts what concerns and challenges this brings to military missions. General Ronald Keys (United States Air Force, ret.) explained that with the quicker-than-expected melting, shipping lanes in the Arctic are both changing and emerging, and there will be competition for resources. However, the military is still not fully capable with the parameters that the Arctic’s harsh landscape and weather conditions pose. White stressed that “One of the keys things we’ve got to do is to keep investing on the science of understanding what is going on — what is going on with our ocean, what is going on not just with the sea ice, but the glaciers and the ice sheets up there which are driving our sea level rise. We need to try to keep reducing the uncertainty so that we can make the right decisions at the right time.”
White also expressed that “the evidence of change is clear, and we really need to start responding and taking action.” This sentiment was reflected in the discussion by the next panel at the forum, the Climate Security Census Project. The recently produced statement was determined by several members of the U.S. National security community, which concluded that the U.S. “must advance a comprehensive policy” that addresses the risks that climate change poses for both national and international security.
The effect of sea level rise on military bases is not the only issue brought on by climate change, so the third panel at the forum featured the authors of the “Briefing Book for a New Administration,” who are calling for the next administration to work to decrease the security risks of climate change. The authors, members of the non-partisan Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), published the report to call on the next administration to take proactive comprehensive actions to “save lives and money, strengthen national security, and demonstrate global leadership.” The Briefing Book includes recommendations for the executive office of the President, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the Department of Energy.
The Climate and National Security Forum and the reports published by a large group of several dozen military, national security, and foreign policy experts stressed the need to fully address questions on how climate change will affect military installations and their ability to carry out their missions. The experts will be watching to see how a new administration will take the CSAG’s recommendations into consideration to protect the nation’s security from the already fast-approaching perils of a changing climate. In the meantime, Rear Admiral White stated, “We’ve got work to do as a nation.”