Climate change has been described as the world’s greatest environmental threat. But it is also increasingly understood as a national security threat, that serves as both a “threat multiplier,” and “catalyst for conflict.” Plus, its national security effects are multidimensional, without geographic or spatial limitations. At the North Pole, it is rapidly melting ice sheets, opening shipping lanes, and renewing the potential for natural resource extraction. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, climate change is causing more intense droughts, impairing already unstable areas and forcing climate refugees to leave their homes. At the South Pole, an ice chunk the size of Delaware recently broke away from the continent of Antarctica, creating uncertainty about massive future environmental degradation.

In light of climate change’s sheer complexity, how should the world’s militaries begin to prepare for its national security threats? As I have previously argued, climate change will impact the security environment and the militaries of the world in three fundamental ways, which I frame as follows:

  1. Climate adaptation: As defined by the U.S. military, this is an “adjustment in natural or human systems in anticipation of or response to a changing environment in a way that effectively uses beneficial opportunities or reduces negative efforts.” This will require investment in climate resilient infrastructure at military bases vulnerable to climate change at home and abroad.
  2. Climate mitigation: As defined by the EPA, this is “human intervention to reduce the human impact on the climate system; it includes strategies to reduce greenhouse gas sources and emissions.” The militaries of the world are an enormous emitter of greenhouse gases—any climate mitigation plan must take their outsized contribution into account.
  3. Climate response: This encompasses responding to humanitarian assistance crises domestically as well as responding to humanitarian assistance and disaster response overseas, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific theater.

Planning for Climate Change in the U.S. Military

These are unique times: While the head of the EPA is rapidly rolling back the Clean Power Plan and related climate change policies, the Defense Department (DoD) continues to plan for climate change. This is due, in part, to the leadership of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis who reiterated the threats posed by climate change in his confirmation hearing and has consistently been firm in his belief that climate change is a national security issue. As a military officer, Mattis was intimately involved in earlier operational energy initiatives, remarking that the U.S. military must be unleashed from “the tether of fuel” on the battlefield. 

Fortunately, DoD climate change guidance issued during the Obama administration remains in effect and the military is planning accordingly. For example, the DoD Climate Adaptation Roadmap was issued in 2014 and just last year the DoD issued its first climate change adaptation and resilience directive. This directive mandated that future military mission planning efforts identify and assess the effects of climate change on the DoD mission and take those effects into consideration when developing plans and implementing procedures. There are even encouraging signs from Congress: It recently kept an amendment to the 2018 defense-funding bill stating that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States

But planning, policy documents, and well-intentioned efforts will only get the U.S. military so far. While DoD can plan for the effects of climate change, Congress ultimately possesses the constitutional “power of the purse” necessary to fund the necessary climate adaption investment at military installations.

Consider the case of Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest naval base and home to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. It resides in an area uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise. In Norfolk, the seas are rising and the land is sinking. Indeed, sea level-rise is a foot and a half higher than when the base was established 100 years ago and recurrent flooding is a constant occurrence. While the naval station must plan for climate change pursuant to DoD directives and existing guidance, funding must follow to fully invest in climate adaptation infrastructure. This is expensive. Taking sensible measures such as raising the aircraft carrier piers at the naval station and safeguarding its support infrastructure will require massive investment. But the alternative is also grim: recurrent flooding, sea level rise, and extreme weather events are projected to grow worse, posing an existential threat to the naval base itself.

On the mitigation front, the U.S. recently took a significant step back in its leadership on the world stage in announcing its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, did not include an opt-out provision for military activities. At this time, it appears that the U.S. military will need to continue to pursue both operational energy and climate mitigation initiatives outside of the Paris Agreement’s framework.

Climate Change Planning in Foreign Militaries

It is not just the U.S. military that has begun to plan for climate change’s effects. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently acknowledged climate change as a national security threat. And NATO’s Resolution 427 on Climate Change and International Security urges all NATO members “to recognize climate change-related risks as significant threat multipliers in their foreign and security policies.” The United Kingdom’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review mentions climate change no less than 25 times, stating that it is “one of the biggest long-term challenges for the future of our planet.” Australia’s military, of critical importance to humanitarian assistance missions in the Pacific, squarely addressed climate change in its 2016 Defense White Paper, asserting that the Australian military will increasingly be called upon to respond to an increase in humanitarian assistance missions caused by climate change.

Russia and China also are appearing to prepare for climate change’s impact on the shifting security environment, particularly in the Arctic. Russia is building new Arctic military bases while surpassing U.S. investment in its ice-breaking capacity –the U.S. military has two icebreakers while Russia has 40 (many nuclear powered). Just last month, a Chinese scientific vessel made the fabled Northwest Passage in record time. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese state media announced a new trade route that would shave travel time by one week from China to North America and shorten the journey by 1,900 miles.

The dangers posed by climate change represent an enormous collective action problem. But it also presents a rare and important opportunity for the militaries of the world to work together and closely collaborate for an increase in humanitarian assistance missions throughout the world. Consider the lessons learned from multi-national counter-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa where unlikely allies joined together to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. The Chinese military’s approach to climate change is critical in Southeast Asia, an area particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Nascent efforts are already underway: The U.S. and Chinese military have begun to train together as part of the Rim of the Pacific exercise, a bi-annual multi-national exercise. This nascent effort could be built upon, with one commentator advocating for a “Climate Change RIMPAC” to bring the world’s militaries together around a common problem.

In sum, climate change will greatly impact the militaries’ operational environment. Indeed, the U.S. military recently issued Joint Operational Environment 2035, entitled “The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World.” It provides a continual framework for future military planning, stating:

JOE 2035 does not predict the future or attempt to forecast specific scenarios or events. Instead, it develops a range of possibilities about future conflict by re-imagining the set of factors and scenarios impacting the future security environment.

The world we will inhabit in 2035 will be greatly shaped by climate change. While there is certainly no shortage of short-term national security threats (terrorism, cyber, North Korea), the threats posed by climate change are persistent, long-term, and will undoubtedly shape this “contested and disordered world.”  It will demand thoughtful planning, sound investment, and close collaboration among the militaries of the world. The climate century is already here – the militaries of the world must rise to meet the challenge.

Image: Getty/Uriel Sinai