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The Legacy of Climate Security Leadership: Sherri Goodman on Heat of the Moment

By Pauline Baudu

In the words of Heat of the Moment host, CNN climate change analyst John D. Sutter: “The United States military is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world. Yet, what is less known is that, when it comes to the climate crisis, the U.S. military is also a place for innovation and strategic thinking.” In December, John Sutter engaged in a conversation with Hon. Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist at the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and Chair of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR). Heat of the Moment is a podcast focusing on people across the globe on the front lines of fighting the climate crisis. In the episode, Sherri Goodman emphasized the key role of the U.S. military in mitigating and adapting to the climate change, as well as the broader importance of climate security leadership. 

Climate change as a threat multiplier with direct effects on the military 

The term “threat multiplier,” coined by Goodman in 2007, was described by Sutter as having shaped “the way in which people studying climate policy think about risks.” This term refers to the fact that pre-existing threats in certain areas of the planet are exacerbated by climate change effects, thereby aggravating the risk of conflict. In the podcast, Goodman illustrated the concept by highlighting the consequences of droughts. Take  North Africa, the Sahel and parts of the Middle East, areas that already suffer from a combination of persistent ethnic conflicts, violent extremism, and inadequate governance capacities. In these regions, droughts and heat waves act as multiplier effects on such conditions by deepening pre-existing instability, risking further conflict.

When asked why she considers the military as central both in being engaged in the conversation about the climate crisis and in implementing climate policy changes itself, Goodman underscored that the cause-effect relationship goes two ways: “The military affects the climate and is affected by it.” She highlighted three of the direct effects that climate change has on the military. 

First, changing conditions in the areas where troops are deployed put their health and readiness at risk if not given proper equipment, be it to protect them from extreme heat or to allow them to operate in cold-weather conditions. 

Second, military infrastructure and installations around the world are vulnerable to sea-level rise, flooding, and extreme-weather events. The resiliency of the 730 U.S. military bases operating in at least 80 countries is, in this regard, crucial to protect the safety of troops and to preserve the efficiency of U.S. operations. 

Third, the nature and frequency of military operations themselves are shaped by climate change, with troops increasingly deployed to respond to domestic climate-related disasters such as hurricanes. All these climate-induced risks on the military need to be looked at as actorless threats. They also remind us, as Goodman stressed, that “Nature always wins, so we might as well better understand it.”

Enhancing institutional climate security leadership: the role of the U.S. military and administration in addressing the climate crisis

“Personal actions matter, but institutional change will make the difference,” noted Goodman. She went on to mention the natural interest that military officers have in climate considerations and explained that a number of the officers she has worked with had, in their ways, been leaders in environmental security during their service, from cleaning up military contamination to conserving natural resources. Goodman highlighted throughout the episode two main ways in which the military institution plays its part in addressing the climate crisis. First, the Department of Defense, in conjunction with the broader intelligence and national security community, are “engines of technological innovation for the nation”: the creation of the Internet and the GPS emerged from defense activities and now the military is at the forefront of developing the new era of climate risk analytics to allow for better climate predictions. Second, the military, as one of the nation’s largest energy users, has a role in advancing clean energy and energy efficiency. By addressing its energy consumption and working to improve its energy efficiency and resiliency, it both improves its military performance and seizes the opportunity to act as a model. 

“The military has the capacity to support this mission and lead by example in technology innovation, but they should not be the primary force responding to climate change,” Goodman stressed later in the episode. She emphasized the role of the overall U.S. Administration in addressing climate change and climate security and points out that tackling such challenges is vital for U.S. global leadership.

Paving the way for the future of climate security leadership

Throughout the episode, Goodman shared her own story and role in the development of environmental security leadership from junior Congressional committee staff member to the first ever U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security, until being given the moniker of “the Godmother of Climate Security” (as per the episode’s title). Throughout her career, she led the integration of environmental considerations into U.S. military policies and practices and witnessed the evolution of the role of climate in national security debates. As she pushed for the reckoning of the climate crisis at a time when the issue was only a small piece of the agenda, she had to find creative ways to break down barriers and to open the national security conversation to new thinking. She stressed the same need for leadership, innovation and risk-taking in addressing the climate crisis today.

When asked, at the end of the episode, what keeps her moving and gives her hope that we can still tackle the crisis, she emphasized the role of the next generation, including young people serving in the military. As Goodman noted, a number of young veterans are already starting businesses in clean energy, clean tech and climate analytics when they finish their military service, as they are well aware of the need to power the planet in better ways in order to reduce risks and “lower our carbon bootprint.”

As COP26 testified to the strengthening of vocal and effective youth-led climate movements, there is no doubt that the next generation will be involved – and creative – in all aspects of addressing the climate crisis. With the crucial role of climate security now being widely acknowledged from civil society to high-level political and security institutions, the legacy of Goodman’s career continues to make its mark.

Pauline Baudu is a Research Assistant at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks.

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