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Climate Change and Ecological Security Must Be at the Center of Our National Defense Strategy

Rough seas pound the hull of Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic as she sails alongside Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua A. Moore

By Holly Kaufman, Sherri Goodman and John Conger 

At a United Nations Security Council meeting in September 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted, “Look at almost every place where you see threats to international peace and security today – and you’ll find that climate change is making things less peaceful, less secure, and rendering our response even more challenging.”  Earlier that month, in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Climate Adaptation Plan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin similarly declared climate change to be a “destabilizing force” that is “demanding new missions” of the Department and “altering the operational environment.”  These leaders are exactly right. 

In this context it is imperative that the Biden Administration places the destabilizing role of climate change–and ecological security more broadly — at the center of the new National Defense Strategy (NDS). In fact, any NDS that does not consider climate change a central variable — as we have long recommended — will get things wrong when it comes to other core U.S. interests such as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, terrorism and cybersecurity. 

A 21st century strategy for U.S. national security and defense must recognize that humanity is living on a planet that has forever changed and will continue to change significantly.  Decimation of the resources and services that nature provides are fundamentally shaping geopolitical risks. As the Department of Defense observed in October in its Climate Risk Analysis, “analyses based on historical frameworks will not be sufficient to prepare for future risks complicated by a changing climate.” 

Examples abound of ways in which climate change is already a threat multiplier. One of the most obvious is the geostrategic competition emerging in the Arctic as climate change is leading to less permanent ice and more open water, including increased military activity in the Arctic by China and Russia.  In the Indo-Pacific region, climate change is worsening security tensions, and China is using humanitarian assistance to gain influence with island nations that face existential risks from sea level rise and extreme weather, including the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Violence in Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere has been linked to food insecurity, droughts, and other impacts of climate change on people’s livelihoods. Climate change is, in every way, a “core interest” that will shape the military’s current and future defense and humanitarian engagements.     

Climate change also affects and undermines U.S. readiness.  U.S. military installations around the world have been harmed by and are at continued risk from extreme weather events, sea level rise, flooding, drought, wildfires, and other climate-related impacts, costing billions of dollars and creating the long-term potential to undermine training capability and readiness.  In 2018 alone, Hurricane Florence devastated  Camp Lejeune and two months later, Hurricane Michael leveled Tyndall Air Force Base.  Heat extremes limit days when U.S. troops can train and make the conditions under which they train and execute missions increasingly challenging.  Increased demand by civilian authorities for Department of Defense support (e.g., from the National Guard) to address climate-related hazards such as wildfires also undermine training and readiness for other missions.  The vulnerabilities of military infrastructure to climate impacts may be increasing faster than the Department of Defense’s ability to respond and adapt.

Furthermore, while the U.S. defense strategy must be clear-eyed about the dangers posed by China and Russia, it must not foreclose potential cooperation on areas of mutual interest.   Cooperation is needed to address the interconnected crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss; cooperative efforts at environmental restoration can improve the economy, security, relationship-building and well-being for everyone.  The U.S.-China joint declaration at the recent Conference of the Parties in Glasgow is just the most recent example of the potential for climate change efforts to be a pillar of cooperation in an otherwise fraught relationship.  U.S. climate leadership is also important to America’s allies, and helping allies and partners build resilience to climate security threats can bolster U.S. national security, just as helping other countries acquire Covid vaccines helps make Americans and our economy more secure while improving our relationships and standing in the world. 

Since taking office, the Biden Administration has repeatedly shown its commitment to integrating climate change and ecological security into its defense and security work. Placing these issues at the center of the National Defense Strategy is the next logical step for such integration.

The authors thank Dave Grossman for his contribution to this article. 

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