Wishing Away Climate Change as a Threat to National Security

This week, President Donald Trump released an “America First” National Security Strategy (NSS), a document that is supposed to represent “a dramatic rethinking of American foreign policy from previous decades,” according to Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster, the president’s second national security adviser. Yet, the document omits any reference to climate change as a national security threat. This is in contrast to previous national security strategies. In fact, the term “climate change” is not mentioned at all in the Trump NSS. This is wishful, wishful thinking.

Make no mistake: Simply because a threat is not addressed does not mean that it no longer exists. The ice in the Arctic does not stop melting, humanitarian disasters exacerbated by climate change do not cease, the drought crisis in Yemen is not solved, nor does the rising ocean stop threatening to drown military installations on the water’s edge.

Clearly, Trump has the authority and legal obligation, as commander-in-chief, to present his national security vision, whatever that may be. But the wholesale absence of the term “climate change” (first briefly mentioned by President George W. Bush in the 2002 NSS) is a significant step backward. By its silence, the new strategy document ignores the emerging military, intelligence, and scientific community consensus that has consistently and objectively stressed climate change’s growing threats to national security.

Indeed, the only discussion of climate is via a passing reference, which acknowledges that “climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system” in the context of economic security. And Trump’s NSS states that the United States will reduce pollution and greenhouse gases but only “while expanding our economy.”

Contrast Trump’s NSS to those of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, whose administration produced two National Security Strategies over its eight years in government. In his first NSS, published in 2010, Obama mentioned climate change no less than 28 times, stating:

The danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe. The United States will therefore confront climate change based upon clear guidance from the science, and in cooperation with all nations—for there is no effective solution to climate change that does not depend upon all nations taking responsibility for their own actions and for the planet we will leave behind.

And in his most recent NSS issued in 2015, Obama stressed the need to confront climate change head-on, listing climate change as one of the top eight strategic risks to American national security interests. In contrast to an “America First” policy, Obama acknowledged the need for American leadership and the importance of international partnerships to address the multifaceted threats posed by climate change.

So, did the threats posed by climate change diminish in any way since 2015? And what new information have we learned about the effects of climate change? The answers are chilling. 

In 2016, the National Intelligence Council, issued a report titled “Implications for U.S. National Security of Anticipated Climate Change,” stating:

Climate change is projected to produce more intense and frequent extreme weather events, multiple weather disturbances, along with broader climatological effects, such as sea level rise. These are almost certain to have significant direct and indirect social, economic, political, and security implications during the next 20 years.

Tragically, this report’s predictions about extreme weather were soon realized with a particularly devastating 2017 hurricane season. Following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria, the military was involved in a massive humanitarian relief effort in Puerto Rico, but its initial response was criticized as “slow and inadequate.” As of this writing, Puerto Rico continues to suffer from a “super blackout” in the hurricane’s aftermath, the longest and largest power outage in modern U.S. history.

In the Arctic, the sea ice is melting at a disturbingly fast rate and last year,  in another historical first, a passenger liner recently traversed the fabled Northwest Passage through ice-free Arctic waters for the first in human history.  This has given rise to what some media outlets have disturbingly called “Apocalypse Tourism.”

So, what is our strategy in the Arctic in light of these fundamental changes? Unclear. The U.S. is an Arctic nation, but the America First NSS only mentions the Arctic once in passing.  And it is missing entirely from its “Strategy in a Regional Context” chapter. But other nations understand that environmental changes are afoot and are planning accordingly. Consider Russia. Beyond expanding its legal claims over oil and gas resources in the Arctic’s continental shelf – the U.S. cannot legally make similar claims as we have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea – Russia is building massive nuclear ice-breakers and new military bases in the Arctic.

In light of this new America First strategy, where do we go from here?

First, despite a broader and disturbing trend attacking science-based and evidence-based research, the scientific community both within and outside government should continue to stick to their climate research, demonstrating its national security implications as they are unveiled. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organization with a deep commitment to independent and rigorous scientific research, recently provided an outstanding example of this sort of climate research in its report “The U.S. Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas.” It documented the threat of sea-level rise at coastal military installations with its potential to swallow significant parts of naval bases and other installations by the end of this century.

Second, Congress has an increasingly important role to play, particularly in exercising its constitutional “power of the purse” to safeguard coastal military installations from the threats posed by climate change and sea-level rise. Indeed, planning for climate change will require massive investment in climate-resilient infrastructure to safeguard Defense Department infrastructure at home and abroad. Thankfully, Congress has recently awoken to this threat: a Climate Solutions Caucus has recently been established and already has 62 members, a rare bipartisan achievement.

And, just last week, the annual defense-spending bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, was signed into law. In it, Congress acknowledged that climate change is a “direct threat to the national security of the United States.” The bill requires the defense secretary to submit to the Armed Services Committees a report on vulnerabilities to military installations and combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years. This must include a list of “the ten most vulnerable military installations within each service.” These reports, due next year, will have the weight and credibility of the defense secretary and will have the potential to catalyze a broader discussion on climate change.

Third, military and Intelligence Community leaders have a continued obligation to protect the American people and plan for uncertainty. Indeed, military leaders and the Intelligence Community can and will continue to provide their best military advice to civilian leadership concerning future threats facing the nation and the world. Past intelligence and military analysis concerning climate change should be built upon and not pushed aside.  Part of that is planning for uncertainty in the forthcoming “climate century” and a global security environment described by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey in the 2015 National Military Strategy as “the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service.” The most recent 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review also stressed the need for the U.S. military to not go it alone in facing climate change’s threats, stating “climate change creates both a need and an opportunity for nations to work together.”

Finally, the very term “America First” is an odd one to resurrect and newly embrace for any National Security Strategy, particularly in light of the term’s usage and checkered history as part of a World War II isolationist movement. Today, the world is more inter-connected than ever. The challenges posed by climate change are more complex than we ever thought. They cannot be faced by any one nation alone. And they certainly can’t be wished away.

Image: Mario Tama/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Mark Nevitt

Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and former commander in the Navy, serving as a tactical jet aviator and attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter (@marknevitt).