Pentagon Sees Climate Change as Immediate Security Risk

The Department of Defense released its 2014 Climate Change Adaption Roadmap on Monday, outlining how the U.S. military plans to adapt to the impacts of climate change. For the first time, the Pentagon discusses climate change as an immediate risk--a factor that should be incorporated into how the military operates today, not just in future decisions.

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U.S. Marines and Navy sailors take positions during desert range training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl Robert C. Medina)

The report, announced at a meeting of top defense officials in Peru, highlights just how central climate change is to the military’s core mission. The military’s clear-eyed perspective on climate change contrasts sharply with the denial, ducking and dodging that marks the stance of some members of Congress, who seem to think the issue will disappear if they continue to ignore it.

“We refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” writes Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the report’s foreword, “because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, helped block U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first climate treaty, in 1997, arguing that it didn’t include developing nations such as China and India and would harm the U.S. economy. In his last few years as a senator Hagel expressed misgivings that the resolution virtually halted all congressional action on climate change; he proposed legislation—which stalled—aiming to drive technology that would curb emissions of carbon-based fuels and greenhouse gases. And as Defense Secretary, he has been admirably forthright about the effects of climate change on national security.

According to the Pentagon report, ecological upheavals that lead to drought and disruptions of food, water and power supplies can undermine fragile governments, creating “an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism.” 

Some experts believe that climate change is at work in Syria, where drought may have helped trigger an exodus of farmers from the countryside to the cities, straining infrastructure and exposing displaced and disaffected young people to extremism. The New York Times reported that ISIS is seizing control of scarce water supplies to help solidify its power in the region.

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The Pentagon report outlines how the DoD is assessing climate change impacts and incorporating them into day-to-day military decisions. War games, for example, now include more storms and flooding scenarios. Generators in flood-prone areas are being moved to higher ground. Troops will need additional health monitoring and protection from infectious diseases, which are spreading as the climate warms.

Floods at Keesler Air Force Base in Missouri (photo: USAF)

In addition to the adjustments outlined in the report, the Pentagon is also working to combat climate change itself. The military, as the single biggest energy consumer in the nation, has a massive carbon footprint, and the energy bills to match. The DoD’s annual electric bill is about $4 billion for its facilities alone. Liquid fuels run about $17 billion a year.

It’s a hefty price to pay for energy sources that compromise national security. That’s why all branches of military service have established clean energy goals and are working to meet them. At West Point, for example, NRDC is working with the Army to transform the prestigious military academy into a net-zero energy base by 2020, one of five such bases in the works for the Army.

NRDC has also worked with the DoD to create a clean energy siting primer for developers, to ensure that new solar, wind and other sources of renewable energy are developed in places that do not interfere with conservation efforts or military training objectives.

In driving clean energy development, in improving energy efficiency in its bases and operations, in working to adapt and strengthen climate resiliency across the board, the military is simply doing its job: protecting our national security. Their efforts clearly demonstrate that energy, military, and conservation needs are not mutually exclusive.

There’s more work to be done, and the road isn’t without bumps, but the Pentagon has demonstrated vision, leadership, and hard-nosed practicality in dealing with climate change—an approach that has eluded Congress thus far. 

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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