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Despite Politics, the Pentagon Launches New Effort on Climate and Environmental Security

By John Conger

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has been addressing climate change issues and examining how they impact national security for a long time – across multiple Administrations, both Democrat and Republican.  In recent years, the DoD has done so despite political pressures to the contrary, though prioritization of the issue declined significantly after the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis. However, recent articles (here and here) highlight a new effort within the Pentagon called Recourse Competition, Environmental Security, and Stability (RECESS), led by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Stability and Humanitarian Affairs), that seeks to create a coherent internal network within the Pentagon to address climate and environmental security threats.  According to recent news, the effort is intended to “corral the Pentagon’s top experts on climate and the environment to better prepare U.S. forces for future threats and conflicts” and has “already collected more than 60 people from across the military, including the intelligence community and combatant commands.” This initiative is new and exciting for a few reasons.

  1. Building a Network.  We at the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) have highlighted the importance of a community of practice on climate and security for more than ten years through our Climate and Security Working Group (CSWG), which includes numerous members from the U.S. government (DoD, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, etc), academia, think tanks and more, and its counterpart, the Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG).  That cross-pollination has been vital to continued progress on the issue within the U.S. government, and even within DoD.  RECESS reflects an embrace of that concept, and an organizational commitment to those that have been working on the issue for years.
  2. Expanding Beyond Installations.  Within the DoD, some of the most salient climate change impacts have been those on military installations and infrastructure, which have caused billions of dollars of damage in recent years (see Tyndall and Offut, for example) and had direct effects on readiness.  The RECESS initiative reflects a growing interest within DoD on climate change impacts that affect the broader security situation.  This isn’t unprecedented, as previous Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) highlighted the threat multiplier impact of climate change on stability worldwide, and DoD has developed strategy documents to respond to the regional impacts of climate change, but this growing, almost grassroots, demand for coordination on fragility and climate stress is noteworthy.
  3. Foundation for Regional Climate Security Plans and Military Mission Impact Assessments.  Our Climate Security Plan for America included several recommendations that the new RECESS group could support, to include Regional Climate Security Plans and Climate Security Military Mission Impact Assessments.  There is clear recognition that climate change is reshaping the strategic environment, and there are clear and practical next steps for addressing that change.
  4. DoD is Highlighting this Work.  One noteworthy aspect of this new project is that DoD has proactively highlighted this work on defense.gov, signaling both leadership support for the effort and the desire to make sure others know of its climate change work, which is significant in and of itself.

As I stated in a recent E&E News article: “Fundamentally, climate change is shaping the strategic environment in which we operate, and when we take the time to understand and anticipate the changes it drives and the decisions it influences, we give ourselves a strategic advantage.  Efforts like RECESS reflect the conscious and collective decision to accept that strategic advantage and, quite possibly, to head off some of the threats that climate change will catalyze.”

John Conger is the Director of the Center for Climate and Security, and former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) at the U.S. Department of Defense 

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