Security Grounds for Bipartisan Climate Action

Shifts in environment can and will impact the military mission of the United States in a variety of ways, leading the Pentagon to label climate change a ‘threat multiplier’ and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to call it a ‘driver of instability.’
Fort Lauderdale South Florida King Tide Climate Change
Saltwater flooding near my family's home in Fort Lauderdale in October 2016.
Credit: Image Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

My name is Christian Stirling Haig, and I am a Scoville Fellow working on this intersection of environmental, energy, and national security. My biography can be found on the Scoville Fellowship website, and for the duration of my fellowship, I will be writing about areas of overlapping interest between environmental groups and the Department of Defense, the world’s single largest user of energy. Additionally, I hope to promote the importance of the environment to American national security as common grounds upon which bipartisan action must be taken.

Bipartisan Climate Action

I spent the weekend nervously checking for updates from my family trapped in South Florida as Hurricane Irma closed in. In the aftermath of the devastation wrought on Houston by Hurricane Harvey, Irma’s strength had even the most hurricane-hardened Floridians running for higher ground in what may be the largest evacuation in American history.

Flat, low-lying Florida is extraordinarily susceptible to sea level rise and flooding, yet some groups of policymakers refuse to recognize or react to the threat that climate change poses. Florida Governor Rick Scott and his state legislature have abdicated their responsibility to defend Florida from the rising waves, forcing bipartisan leaders of Southern Floridian local and municipal governments to look to each other rather than to state leaders to fight rising sea levels.

Climate change has not always been such a partisan issue. Florida’s prior governor, Republican Charlie Crist made combating climate change a priority, promoted renewable energy, and pushed for an Everglades restoration project. Climate change does not have to be a wedge issue that divides Americans, and given that it will affect us all, it should not be. The case for the existence of climate change is ironclad, and Republican policymakers are not deaf to reason. They may privately acknowledge the issue, but climate change denial became a litmus test for the party as American politics has become increasingly polarized. This raises the question, “after years of fighting Democrats over the environment, how can Republicans find common ground with their opponents and work together?”

One area of common ground is national security—the intersection of the United States military and climate change. Shifts in environment can and will impact the military mission of the United States in a variety of ways, leading the Pentagon to label climate change a ‘threat multiplier’ and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to call it a ‘driver of instability.’ Rising sea levels endanger dozens of military installations from Virginia to Diego Garcia to Guam, climate-linked instability in places such as the Middle East increase the likelihood of deployment oversees, and even battlefield planning must take into account changing climates. The Department of Defense itself has released multiple reports acknowledging the risk that climate change poses to national security.

Climate Change and National Security

My own interest in environmental security derives from my upbringing. My parents live in slowly flooding South Florida as I mentioned earlier, and I also have family in the melting Arctic of the north of Norway. The Arctic has felt a more pronounced impact from global warming than other areas, and the High North, like Florida, is in dire need of climate action. Just a cursory examination of the Arctic region renders several climate-linked issues of national security of concern for the United States.

Sea ice has declined at an accelerated rate, opening the Arctic Ocean to increased natural resource exploitation, an uncertain international legal status, and potential new maritime trade routes. This local impact of climate change may impact global trade, rerouting summer shipping from the Suez Canal and Strait of Malacca to the Arctic Ocean, and bring online vast new quantities of fossil fuels—possibilities that would have a profound impact on the environment and American defense policy.

Icebreaker Arctic coast guard
The USCGC Polar Star is one of the United States' last operational icebreakers.
Credit: Source: United States Coast Guard

A new, environmentally vulnerable, formerly lightly defended, increasingly active, and hotly contested maritime frontier between North America and Russia warrants American policymaker attention and action. But as this border with Russia grows in s, American operational access to the Arctic has deteriorated significantly. The United States operates just two outdated icebreakers while Russia operates dozens of nuclear- and diesel-powered icebreakers and has invested billions of dollars into its Arctic capabilities. 

Not only is the United States vastly outnumbered in the region, but the American vessels are not in good shape—one of them reportedly relies on eBay to source antiquated parts—and the expensive ships take years to build. Repeated attempts to fund new icebreakers have failed in Congress despite the importance of icebreakers in search-and-rescue, possible oil spill cleanup, scientific research, and defense operations. It is also dangerous to rely on this few ships: if an icebreaker were to get stuck in ice, the United States’ dubiously operational spare is not a reliable rescue option. It may be compromising to the United States’ national security to be forced to rely on allies (or the Russians) to access the North. 

Additionally, American Arctic military installations may be degrading with climate change. Permafrost melt and sinking foundations are wreaking havoc on buildings and infrastructure throughout the High North, so damage to Alaskan defense installations and corresponding roads built on melting permafrost should be expected. This danger to mission readiness is a direct result of climate change. 

Democrats and Republicans have a history of cooperating in defense of the nation, and as is evident in the Arctic, climate change will continue to impact national security. The United States cannot afford to drag its feet in confronting global climate change—its effects are already being felt, and Russia is already acting. Both parties must depoliticize the issue and act together to tackle the pressing threat of climate change as defense of the environment we all depend on and as defense of the United States.