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How the U.S. Military’s Not Waiting to Find Out if Climate Change is an Existential Risk

Soldiers_assist_residents_displaced_by_Hurricane_Sandy_in_Hoboken,_N.J.In case you missed it, Keith Johnson with Foreign Policy recently published an article that strikes at the heart of where the United States is in assessing and preparing for the security risks of climate change. While much of the discussion on this topic is about carefully parsing lines of causality, and waiting for certainty before raising concerns about these connections, a quote from Marc Levy in the article makes the case that this is a luxury:

“I think we’re woefully far behind…Sometimes people get accused of being overly alarmist…I think the warnings being given about the security threats from climate change are overly timid.”

Rhetorically, however, the current Administration has not been timid on this question. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, President Obama noted. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”

This rhetoric has been shored up in recent months with one of the most significant responses to climate change from the Department of Defense (DoD Directive 4715.21: Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience), which is the latest and most robust output on climate change in a long line of assessments, strategy and planning documents from the Pentagon which stretches back to 2003, during the first half of the George W. Bush Administration. As noted by Johnson:

“In the middle of January, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work signed off on one of the potentially most significant, if little-noticed, orders in recent Pentagon history. The directive told every corner of the Pentagon, including the office of the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs of staff, and all the combatant commands around the world, to put climate change front and center in their strategic planning.”

 Johnson continues:

 “All DoD operations worldwide,” the directive began, “must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military.”

Though the term “existential risk” is not found in the directive, the fact that the whole Pentagon organization, across the military readiness, operations and strategy spectrum, will need to put in place specific actions to adapt to climate change, suggests that the issue has reached a level of strategic significance that cannot be ignored.

In this context, Johnson interviewed the Center for Climate and Security’s Christine Parthemore to get a better look at the substance of the DoD’s concerns about climate change risks, and what drives them. From the article:

“You can’t be on the ground in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East and not see what’s happening,” said Christine Parthemore, a former Pentagon official who now serves as the executive director of the Center for Climate & Security, a think tank.

“I think that is why we’ve seen so many defense, intelligence, and diplomatic leaders start growing concerned about the security implications of climate change far earlier than our political leaders, academic researchers, or the general public,” she said.

Johnson also interviewed the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board member, Admiral Samuel Locklear III, U.S Navy (ret), who draws from his experience as Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), and a long career of both planning for and implementing responses to climate-related risks and other natural disasters. An extended passage from the article:

When Adm. Sam Locklear ran U.S. Pacific Command from 2012 to 2015, his area of responsibility encompassed more than half of humanity. He saw increasing threats from famines to extreme typhoons to migrating fish stocks, and said as much in 2013, calling climate change the biggest U.S. security risk in the Pacific.

That earned him an incredulous public questioning from Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is a leading GOP voice on both defense and the environment, and who has repeatedly lambasted Obama’s fixation on climate-related threats over more immediate challenges.

But Locklear, now retired, isn’t backing down.

“President Obama has it right. I think it is a significant existential threat,” he told FP. While ISIS, Russia, and China are all issues the commander in chief will have to deal with, Locklear said, “You’ve got to stay focused on the big-picture issues that face humanity and their implications…

Locklear figures the U.S. military, at least, has a good grasp of the problem, the Arctic aside. But he is concerned that climate-fueled breakdown in fragile states that are either unable or unwilling to prepare for looming shocks and stresses could seriously imperil U.S. national security in years and decades to come.

In fleshing out the scientific rationale behind the Pentagon’s concerns, Johnson notes that while major shifts in the climate throughout history have had serious consequences, the near future is likely to present risks in orders of magnitude greater:

Man-made climate change appears to be even more dangerous: It is happening much faster than cyclical changes in the past, and the tectonic shifts are happening in unprecedented combinations. Global warming is melting the Arctic, raising sea levels, driving bugs carrying diseases like Zika, malaria, and dengue fever into virgin environments, and making dry places drier and wet places wetter — all at once. The Pentagon now defines climate change as a “present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk.”

Knowing this, and knowing what we have done to prepare for this future, Marc Levy, who has spent decades conducting climate and security stress tests, including projects with the U.S. government and the United Nations, posits an image of a very dangerous future – a future where we knew about the risks, but failed to take sufficient action to prepare for them. That is a world where climate change could, in fact, be an existential risk.

And despite the focus of the mainstream conversation about climate change being on the political divide, the U.S. military has been diligently preparing for this accelerating risk across Administrations, and irrespective of which political party occupies the Executive Branch. The Pentagon’s recent directive makes it clear: The U.S. military is not waiting to find out if climate change is an existential risk. They’re working to make sure that it isn’t.


  1. But… what they are doing is still a major contributor to Climate Change. Bombing infrastructure to cripple ISIS for example, is an ecological disaster that is producing floods of refugees and disaffected just making the problems there worse!

  2. Jackson Davis says:

    The existential threat goes way beyond what even most climate scientists are willing to acknowledge:

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