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Senior Military Leaders to Congress: Climate Change Presents Strategic Challenges in the Arctic

General OShaughnessy

General O’Shaughnessy, nominee for NORTHCOM & NORAD Commander, responds to a question on climate change before the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 17, 2018

By Heather Messera

“The damn thing melted” – Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer on the Arctic, April 19, 2018

Over just the past few days, three senior military leaders from the Air Force and the Navy have raised significant concerns about the effects of climate change on the military mission in the Arctic.

First, on Tuesday, April 17, 4-star Air Force General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding his nomination to be Commander of United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM), and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). While the full hearing is worth watching (including the comments of Admiral Davidson, the PACOM nominee), a notable exchange on climate change between Senator Blumenthal and General O’Shaughnessy occurred at the 1:27:08 minute mark.  Asked about whether or not climate change presents strategic challenges in the Arctic – part of NORTHCOMs and NORADs Area of Responsibility (AoR) – General O’Shaughnessy replied “Senator, it absolutely does.” General O’Shaughnessy then went on to detail increases in activity in a thawing Arctic, highlighting the need to consider strategic competition in the region with Russia and China. 

The full transcript of the exchange:

Blumenthal: General O’Shaughnessy, I’m interested in the impact of climate change on NORTHCOM operations, the thawing of the Arctic, to put it most simply. How is it impacting our mission requirements? Has it impacted the number of ships and patrols required in the Arctic? I can’t give you off the top of my head the numbers on the contraction of the perennial ice cover there, but certainly it creates strategic challenges does it not?

General O’Shaughnessy: Senator, it absolutely does. And certainly the Arctic, for example, just as you mention, the Northern Sea Route as an example, we see increased use and activity in the Arctic. I think from the NORTHCOM perspective and the NORAD perspective as well, if confirmed, I would certainly make the Arctic a priority. Because as we look to the future, look at the strategic competition we’re in, look at Russia and China, and their activities there, that is clearly something that we need to also be focused on.

Then on Thursday, April 19, as reported in USNI News, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, both highlighted these climate-related Arctic challenges during and after a posture hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the context of their decision to revise the 2014 Arctic Strategy. From the USNI article:

“Asked what triggered the decision to revise the 2014 document now, Richardson said “the Arctic triggered it” – and Spencer added, “the damn thing melted.”

“The Arctic ice caps are as small as they’ve been in my lifetime,” Richardson said.
“And that gives rise to strategic changes. Waterways that are open. The secretary mentioned the blue-water Arctic. Continental shelves that are exposed, and the resources on those shelves. So there are strategic issues that arise from that shrinking of the icecap. And then there’s this National Defense Strategy that’s changed our focus as well. So it’s really, from a number of perspectives, about time to do that again.”

By our count, 16 senior defense leaders during this Administration have raised concerns about a changing climate, and its implications for the military mission.

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