A panel of extraordinary military leaders—16 men and women generals and admirals, including prior commanders, commandants, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—came to a pretty devastating conclusion recently about climate strategy.
The Military Advisory Board of the Center for Naval Analyses, a 70-year-old federally funded think tank, says that current actions by the United States and the international community are not sufficient for us to adapt to destabilization from climate change.
In particular, the general officer retirees comprising the panel refer to events projected by recent reports like the IPCC Fifth Assessment, the National Climate Assessment, and World Bank, American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Climatic Data Center, and National Research Council evaluations. However, they call out these impacts from the unique perspective of national security. And their climate strategy is neither naive nor limited to the military environment.
“Strengthening resilience to climate impacts already locked into the system is critical.” This will reduce long-term risk only under one condition: if actionable agreements on ways to stabilize climate change accompany these improvements. Security ramifications of global climate change should be catalyzing cooperation and change, the panelists say. Instead, they find climate change accelerating instability in vulnerable areas of the world and worsening conflicts there. They regret growing public inattention:
“Concern over the potential for climate change impacts on our national security—regardless of the cause—has diminished as a national issue, and politically charged debate has silenced sound public discourse. As members of the MAB we believe that congressional action is warranted—and it is needed now. Neither the DOD, nor any other agency, can act alone to address the impacts of climate change.”
The military panel sees rapid population growth, especially in coastal and urban areas, and complex changes in global security conditions as adding strategic security risks. “When it comes to thinking about the impacts of climate change,” they say, “we must guard against a failure of imagination.”
The panel highlights the accelerated melting of “old ice” in the Arctic—probably because that region represents areas of disputed jurisdiction and the most imminent challenges in terms of climate strategy. Melting makes the Arctic more accessible to a wide variety of human activities, including shipping, resource extraction, fisheries, tourism, and other commerce. This activity level and the concomitant impacts will only accelerate in the coming decades. Neither the US nor the international community is prepared for the pace of change in the Arctic, the panel concludes.
Projected climate change impacts within our own borders will also encumber homeland security. Of particular concern are climate impacts to American military, infrastructure, economic, and social support systems.
Infrastructure. Projected climate change can harm the physical components of our national critical infrastructure and limit their capacities.
Economic. Climate change will threaten major sections of the U.S. economy.
Social. Impacts of climate change will affect major sections of our society and stress social support systems such as first responders.
The panel states emphatically that concerns over the potential impacts of changing climate can bring diverse stakeholders and communities together to find effective solutions. “Cooperation will be especially important in an era in which military budgets, like many others across government, will be severely constrained. Planning for the future of America’s military must factor in both the limitations on readiness accompanying climate changes and the profusion of demands for military support resulting from climate and weather–related conditions and events.”
The military leaders offer some strong recommendations for immediate and sustained action:
To lower our national security risks, the United States should take a global leadership role in preparing for the projected impacts of climate change.
Supported by National Intelligence Estimates, the U.S. military’s combatant commanders should factor in impacts of projected climate change across their full spectrum of planning and operations.
The US should accelerate and consolidate efforts to prepare for increased access and military operations in the Arctic.
Climate adaptation planners should consider the water-food-energy nexus in military climate strategy to ensure comprehensive decisionmaking.
In addition to comprehensively assessing impacts on mission and operational resilience, Defense should develop, fund, and implement plans to adapt, including developing metrics for measuring impacts and resilience.
The Department of Defense should place a greater emphasis on the projected impacts of climate change on both DOD facilities and associated community infrastructures.
“While the causes of climate change and its impacts continue to be argued or ignored in our nation, the linkage between changes in our climate and national security has been obscured. Political concerns and budgetary limitations cannot be allowed to dominate what is essentially a salient national security concern for our nation. Our Congress, the administration, and all who are charged with planning and assuring our security should take up the challenge of confronting the coming changes to our environment.”