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Finding Climate Change Between the Lines in the National Defense Strategy

ASP-National-Defense-Strategy-Report_Summary_PageBy John Conger

Earlier this year, concerns were raised by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress about the new National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy omitting references to climate change or its possible impact on our security situation.

Recent work by the American Security Project (ASP) shows that even though the National Defense Strategy does not call out climate change specifically, it is most certainly in there implicitly.  ASP decided to look for climate change between the lines and concluded:

The 2018 NDS outlines how the operating environment is changing, highlighting “challenges to free and open international order and the re-emergence of long-term strategic competition between nations.”

Within this framework, we find that climate change will impact the national security of our nation in three main ways. First, climate change will undermine the existing international order. Second, at the same time, weak states will be more vulnerable to great power influence. And third, threats to the homeland will become closer to home and less concrete, allowing them to permeate our borders. As noted in the NDS, “the homeland is no longer a sanctuary.”

In particular, ASP notes the prospect of great power competition in a melting Arctic:

Russia is expanding its influence across eastern Europe and as sea ice disappears, Russia continues to build up its military presence within the Arctic as well. The potential resources and trade routes of an open Arctic would be an obvious advantage. Similarly, China, is challenging the U.S. both on land and at sea. China recently surpassed the United States with the largest Navy in the world, and continues to expand its footprint. While not an Arctic nation, China’s icebreaker fleet is already superior to America’s and they are developing plans for a nuclear icebreaker to add to its growing fleet.

They also note that China has used climate assistance as a weapon of influence where the United States has backed away from discussing the challenges of climate change:

Today, China and Russia are developing relationships in both South America and Africa. The effects of climate change will likely increase instability and insecurity within already vulnerable regions, potentially pushing them towards new partners. China, especially, is using climate-related aid as a new element of leverage.

The bottom line is that the NDS doesn’t need to cite climate change explicitly for climate change to affect the Pentagon’s priorities.  It plays an important role in changing the strategic landscape as the U.S. looks at the world through the lens of great power competition and global influence.  It is part and parcel of the “increasingly complex global environment” that is referenced in the NDS several times. The U.S. will need to become attuned to the strategic advantages of supporting its allies, partners and prospective partners in dealing with climate change threats, and the strategic risks of not doing so.  Further, as sea level rise, rising temperatures, wildfires and extreme weather events affect our forces, our infrastructure and our readiness, they will affect the lethality of the force. That’s a risk we can’t afford to ignore.





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