While most people acknowledge climate change as a significant issue, many do not realize the looming threat it poses to our national security. For many military experts, it’s a risk as pressing as nuclear weapons or terrorism, dramatically altering “the very geostrategic landscape in which the U.S. military operates” (Military Expert Panel Center for Climate and Security Report: Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission). The Department of Defense (DOD) considers climate change a “threat multiplier,” amplifying instability by worsening stressors like food and water scarcity, poverty, and social tensions, which can drive political upheaval and threaten global stability, creating a security threat at home and abroad.
Last Monday, a panel of former DOD officials spoke at a briefing hosted by the Center for Climate Security, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation to provide insight on the implications of climate change for national security. Gen. Ron Keys (Former Commander, Air Combatant Command, U.S. Air Force) summarized that climate change matters to the DOD because it impacts mission effectiveness, battlespace awareness, and the military’s very ability to “survive to operate,” a term describing how operations must continue in difficult circumstances, such as floods or wildfires. As the climate is altered, the number of extreme weather events will increase, making it more challenging to effectively complete missions due to increased uncertainty. Brig. Gen. Gerald Galloway (Former Dean of the Academic Board, U.S. Military Academy at West Point) highlighted the importance of science to address this problem, remarking how understanding the environment and weather patterns has been vital to the success of past missions. Likewise, melting Arctic ice creates issues with battlespace awareness by opening new passageways that once were solid ice. It also exposes our northern borders to potential threats where ice once insulated our nation; for example, Russia covers 40 percent of the Arctic coastline.
Hon. Sherri Goodman (Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense; Former COL CEO & President; Senior Fellow, Wilson Center) compared the risks associated with a changing climate to those of Cold War nuclear weapons, saying they pose an “equally high consequence and higher probability threat.” In addition to extreme weather and international threats from the Arctic, rising sea levels and erosion will damage coastal military installations at home and abroad. It’s not just bases in jeopardy; Rear Adm. Ann Phillips (Former Commander, U.S. Navy) stressed that communities, such as Hampton Roads, Virginia, are already facing flash floods and rising water on a daily basis.
The DOD is already addressing climate change and its associated risks, but the panel unanimously underscored the need for further assessment and action. They shared concern that the polarization of the issue might prevent the DOD from using accurate descriptive language or from obtaining adequate funds. Keys noted that “Mother Nature doesn’t belong to a party;” while ‘climate change’, ‘sea level rise,’ and related terms may have become politicized, the experts emphasized the inevitability of the consequences and bipartisan need for action. Whether or not the current administration acknowledges climate change as a serious threat (as evidenced by the president’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement), it seems clear the DOD deems the certainty of risk high enough to warrant significant steps towards research and prevention measures.