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Highlights from the U.S. Navy War College Conference on Climate Change and National Security

Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua A. Moore

By Elsa Barron

On January 9th, climate and security experts, many from the Center on Climate and Security (CCS), virtually convened for a US Naval War College conference, “The National Security Significance of a Changing Climate.” The conference organizer, Dr. Andrea Cameron, highlighted the timeliness of this conversation, as the United States enters an executive transition that will bring a heightened focus on climate change as a serious national security threat. However, even with that prioritization, comprehensively addressing the security implications of climate change will be a hefty task. Keynote speaker, Hon. Alice Hill, Member of the CCS Advisory Board, highlighted that the two largest challenges on this front are a lack of education about climate change and its politicization in the United States (see keynote here). By providing a space for a robust and nonpartisan discussion of climate change and its national security risks, the Naval War College hopes to help address those concerns.  

The conference followed five major themes in environmental security: global power competition, ocean competition and the blue economy, impacts on fragile states, domestic security implications, and Department of Defense (DoD) budget and infrastructure. In each of these discussions, experts analyzed the past but largely looked to future risks, echoing Hill’s recognition that, “The past is no longer a safe guide to the future when it comes to climate change.”

In light of these reflections, Hon. Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist at CCS and Chair of the Council on Strategic Risks, argued that we are witnessing the “climatization of security,” where all other security goals become intertwined with the realities of a warming climate (see her full remarks here, at 53:20). Ignoring these realities becomes dangerous for national and human security. The DoD can “lead by example” in combating climate change in three critical ways: first, the Secretary of Defense should require that all Pentagon strategies and force plans, from the National Defense Strategy to the potential next Quadrennial Defense Review, as well regional plans for specific theatres, discuss both the risks of climate change and the opportunities to address it. Second, the Secretary of Defense must make climate change a priority in the full range of military-military engagements he and defense leaders undertake, just as President-elect Biden has already discussed climate change with most of the foreign leaders with whom he has spoken. Third, DoD should lead by example in both clean energy and resilient infrastructure. DoD should create both a Clean Energy Innovation Office, and a Clean Energy Transition Fund, to incentivise the military departments and acquisition commands to buy lower carbon infrastructure and technology.

The “climatization of security” not only relates to global power competition but also to climate impacts on fragile states. On the second panel which focused on fragile states, Dr. Marcus King, Member of the CCS Advisory Board, began the conversation with the example of Syria, a nation that was decimated by drought and agricultural failure that exacerbated conditions of instability that contributed to political unrest and to civil war (see panel here) – a subject first written about by CCS in 2012. This illustrates that the limited adaptive capacity of fragile states can mean that climate change becomes a trigger for other kinds of security disasters. Dr. Joshua Busby, Senior Research Fellow with CCS, concluded that not only climate impacts, but also the direct cause of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions, poses a security threat. The key solution to this threat is to decarbonize energy sources and infrastructure, complementing the specific recommendations of Hon. Sherri Goodman for a clean energy transition. Speaking broadly, Dr. Busby noted that the solution to climate risks are not primarily military in nature, and yet collectively, the panel noted that the military can help to prevent and to respond to risk by greening its forces, predicting the greatest climate security threats, and when necessary, responding to crises with support.

The conversation then shifted to the homeland, as panelists explored the domestic security threats of climate change in the United States and the implications for the DoD budget and infrastructure (see panel here). The most cited examples of domestic climate security threats were hurricanes, which have damaged critical military infrastructure, interrupted training and operations, and resulted in the need for the military to engage in disaster response. Hon. W. Jordan Gillis pointed out that one of the greatest steps to improve national security in this area is to improve predictive capacity around environmental hazards. Rear Admiral (ret.) Ann C. Phillips, also a Member of the CCS Advisory Board, added that in addition to long term thinking, building security requires local partnerships, such as those she has fostered to increase climate resilience in coastal Virginia. When it comes to the DoD, these kinds of programs and partnerships require funds, which are difficult to reroute from other sources. This is why, noted Hon. John Conger, Director of CCS, it’s important to consider environmental programs in light of their national security benefits, which tends to garner more urgency and attention than environmentalism alone (see remarks here). 

Ultimately, Friday’s conference helped push forward the conversation on climate risks and opportunities in the security community. Increasing education about climate change and its impacts within military ranks and beyond helps facilitate a shift towards prioritizing the environment as a serious and pressing item on the security agenda. 

Climate change presents a number of challenges; it exacerbates security threats in fragile states and intensifies disasters at home and abroad. However, it also presents the opportunity for local and international collaboration, sustainable development, and innovation. 

Elsa Barron is an intern with the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks

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