Climate Change and National Security

In a report to the US Congress, the Department of Defense identifies climate change “as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term threat.” Climate change poses a very real threat to national and global security in its capacity to cause “natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Citing an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, DoD and its Geographic Combatant Commands state, “climate change will have the greatest impact on areas and environments already prone to instability.” I find this to be a critical report that hopefully will force US policy makers to recognize the immediate threat that climate change poses to US national security. DoD makes responding to climate change a top priority and therefore makes climate change a much more urgent issue.

DoD and its GCCs have certainly done a fair amount of research on the potential impact climate change will have on their own Areas of Responsibility, but how useful and effective do you think the steps DoD says it is taking to address climate change are? What must the rest of the US government and the international community do to respond to climate change?

Climate change is clearly an international problem. What plans can you find in this report that include international cooperation? Is there potential here for countries to free ride efforts made by the US and other countries with large security apparatuses, the same sort of free riding seen as a result of faulty international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol? DoD mentions situations where the US can and should to respond to climate change, but there is the possibility that these countries could come to rely too much on US support and so DoD could become overextended. — Mitch

11 thoughts on “Climate Change and National Security

  1. Hey Mitch,

    Thanks for kicking off a discussion on the role of the US in Climate Change. I too am curious about the whether or not the US should take the lead on this effort, or whether the pressure of impending negative climate scenarios will finally push other countries like China (who’s “best foot forward” has been only try to reach stable emission levels by 2030) into action.

    I think there are two parts worth discussing: first whether or not the US should be become involved, and second the political feasibility of actually accomplishing a reversal in the negative effects of global climate change.

    I believe the US has no choice but to be the leading force in combating climate change – and the DoD is one of the best government agencies to accomplish this. Shifting the mindset of Climate Change as a problem to a pertinent catastrophic risk is the mindset the world need to takes. By asking the DoD to start to take on this risk, it indicates the seriousness to which we see the problem. In Barnett’s paper “Security and Climate Change” we see realistic and data driven ties to increase in temperature over a long or short period of time and the increase in instability. As the US has defined itself as a global policing force, as well as having a higher concentration of scientists devoted to the problem, and the funding and capabilities to actively combat the issue, we will have to take the lead on this regardless of the free rider problem. Through a combination of “carrot and stick” methods, I bet we are likely to see other nations joining the effort. Ultimately we might simply need to hold out for a scientific breakthrough to make a cheaper alternative to carbon emission creation.

    To actually implement and execute a climate change plan that significantly decreases global risks we will need a combination of reduction efforts and active combatant efforts. Based on the readings we can discuss the effects of geo-engineering and specifically US capacity to enact this. In the commentary on “Climate Engineering Reconsidered,” the paper indicates the enacting solar radiation management using sulphate aerosols is likely only possible as a global emergency under which we’ve been pushed passed the point of “no return.” This is due to political feasibility, i.e. the likelihood of getting the world nations to pitch in and contribute to this endeavor. Solar radiation management though would likely stop sea level rise and West Antarctic ice melt but has a host of potentially negative consequences. If one were to commit to this plan, it could be done unilaterally – solely by the US. The DoD would need to recognize that we could not wait for a global emergency and deploy quickly. Based on the Roback paper it sounds like the US could use 9 KC-10 Extender fighter planes at an annual cost of ~$300million. Not too expensive for our large defense budget.

    Questions remain though: What will other country’s reactions be to unilateral behavior? Will geoengineering effects increase or decrease carbon emissions? Could we leverage our geoengineering efforts to acquire benefits from other nations?

  2. While I agree with the previous posts that a multilateral effort is entirely necessary to combat climate change, I feel like leaving it up to the United States DoD to accomplish this goal may be seen as an aggressive tendency by other nations. Although previous attempts to establish a commitment for all countries to follow have failed, setting an example and expecting, or even coercing, others to follow at this point would almost certainly fall short given the small timeframe the world has left to combat climate change.
    The steps taken by the DoD will likely prove somewhat effective, but a dedicated organization of scientists unaffiliated with any one nation would almost assuredly lead to more international cooperation. Furthermore, this new organization could have more commitment from even the more aloof countries when it comes to climate change forcing a global commitment to deal with a truly global issue. Naturally the UN already backs organizations along these lines, but they look for policy solutions from policy makers, whereas the rapidity of climate change begs the need for scientific solutions that can make the world excel even around the negligence of certain countries. Climate change can lead to more scientific innovation when the world’s back is against the wall rather than making people play the blame game between different countries and trying to coerce them into following the established norms of one nation.

  3. I think there are two extremely important concepts to note about the DoD report: the first is that the US military views climate change as an immediate and not just a long-term threat, as Mitch mentioned in his post. Equating climate change to geopolitical hazards – described in the report as a “threat multiplier” to existing points of concern – provides a shift in tone that is entirely uncharacteristic of many US politicians in both parties. The second point to note in the report, which helps answer one of the questions Mitch posed, is that the DoD is primarily concerned with mitigating existing and future threats, rather than tackling climate change head-on. Given that the DoD is not the White House, this is essentially all that they can feasibly do (other than maybe sourcing lower emissions armored trucks) to mitigate the effects of climate change. Since the military is concerned with national security, and because they have indicated that floods, droughts and other weather effects will come as a result of climate change, the three-pronged approach of infrastructure building, training and equipping seems successful to achieve their aims.

    However, there’s clearly a fundamental issue here, which is that we’re putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. The DoD can build as many levees as it wants, but unless the federal government tackles climate change head-on, sea levels will continue to rise. The fault here doesn’t lie with the DoD but with the larger political system as a whole. This is where opportunities for international cooperation really need to be acted upon. In the meantime, the DoD is in fact opening itself up to free-riding, but as is often the case, it may well be largely in America’s best interests to pay for infrastructure investments abroad and avoid crises that would require military or humanitarian intervention (such is the price of being the global hegemon). Essentially, the DoD is laying out a preventative approach that will make much greater expenditures less likely in the future. However, until an international agreement that fixes the root problem is achieved, there will probably be many more expenses to come.

  4. Given the DoD’s position as a typically credible source, I agree that this critical report does have the potential to persuade its audience to take the threat more seriously. And yes, I concur that there are considerable barriers (one of which to be free riding) to building equitable international cooperation over risk mitigation, with particular focus on Chinese cooperation.

    In addressing the first part of the posed question, I would add that cooperation between U.S. interest groups and government organizations mirrors some of these barriers, and we should consider which groups have the power to make measurable impacts. Although the DoD’s report is critical in itself, policymakers and other agencies, such as the EPA, should transition into leading mitigation efforts. The DoD has limitations to influence climate change initiatives, and has more actionable impact when conflict or disaster ensues; policymakers should understand this risk assessment report as they weigh in on the economic burdens that usually oppose climate change action. In considering an example of the interrelation between the DoD’s assessment and an action with potential measurable impact, the EPA unveiled the ‘Clean Power Plan’ on Aug. 3rd. Although the DoD’s assessment could influence a wider set of policymakers and agencies, this plan has the potential to lead by example. Additionally, I would add that U.S. has and will probably continue to be a leading force in combating climate change, but we should not necessarily assume that other nations will join the effort solely based on our lead.

  5. As previous posters have said, I agree that the DoD’s plan laid out in this report is necessary in the defense of the effects of climate change. The report is effective in presenting the evidence of climate change in an organized and simple manner, arriving quickly at its important points. This evidence is solid, coming from a reliable and authoritative source. The plan itself seems effective in preparing for and mitigating loss due to the anticipated rise in the occurrence of severe weather and changing environments. As for the rest of the US government, it would obviously be imperative that other US agencies and local governments/ officials be aware of this plan and be ready to respond when these plans must be implemented. This would require all politicians and policymakers, both conservative and liberal, to accept that the climate is changing. Enacting these federally mandate, with its scientific evidence, I believe is one step towards making this universally accepted. But since the plan is only a mitigation plan against the effects of climate change, I do not believe it will achieve this feat. In the international community, since many of the GCCs cover large geographic areas, many other countries must also be aware of climate change and the US’ mitigation plan and also accept its operations and assistance.

    But I also agree more fully that, as Sebastian says, these mitigations measures are merely a “band-aid on a bullet wound.” This is problematic in two ways. Yes, it gives the impression that the US is taking a militaristic approach to the problem, as Ben said. But it also sets a seeming precedent that the US has given up on mitigating climate change altogether, instead opting to only mitigate losses due its effects. I believe that, while it is indeed important to mitigate these losses, more universal acceptance of and widely pursued efforts against climate change, both domestically and internationally, will come with the institution of fundamental laws attempting to mitigate the change itself. Despite seeing the immediate threats in this report, people are more likely to see the importance in changing their personal lives when tackling climate change head-on.

  6. Sebastian took the words out of my mouth (or fingers, I guess…).

    The DoD report does not “address” climate change. It is looking at potential responses to it. In fact, the DoD report takes indefinite global warming as a given. In the short term, this is fairly obvious. But unless drastic climate action is taken soon, it’ll be inevitable for centuries or more.

    On one hand, the DoD deserves some praise for admitting that climate change is occurring and that responses are necessary. In my own home state of North Carolina, the State Legislature has forbidden planning using the latest projections of sea level rise and instead mandates that sea level projections use “historical precedent.” (for more depressing info: ) . The DoD is resisting pressure to bury its head in the sand.

    On the other hand, I think it provides climate change deniers a chance to pivot from one excuse for inaction to another excuse for inaction. Instead of “there’s no climate change,” they can point to this report and say “whatever happens, the US Military can deal with it.” And at some point, the final pivot is “well now it’s too late for us to do anything about it, so why bother.”

    On a final, unrelated note, I found it curious that we were assigned a DoD reading and not a reading from the Department of Homeland Security, the agency tasked with dealing with not only terrorism but also natural disaster relief. I hope that they too have some similar document. Their climate change preparedness affects my everyday life much more than the DoD’s climate change preparedness in, for example, Haiti, does.

  7. Similar to previous posters, I agree that the DoD’s recognition of climate change as an ongoing threat to national security could potentially encourage U.S. policymakers more broadly to pursue effective climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. As many of our readings this week stressed, however, unless we resort to a unilateral approach like geo-engineering, combatting climate change requires a robust multilateral commitment. Even if the United States assumes a leadership role, I still worry that many “developing” countries will decide against opting-in.

    For example, consider global approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The 2014 climate change report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified greenhouse gas emissions as a major factor in climate change, noting that emissions are driven largely by economic and population growth. While most developing countries generally contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly developing countries like China and India still have a major impact on our global climate. Unfortunately, the Chinese government and other developing nations often resort to the following argument: “Almost all of the environmental problems today were caused by existing world powers when they were industrializing, so it is not fair for them to criticize and restrict the economic development of less powerful countries.” In fact, this type of rhetoric dominated the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, resulting in what most people view as a huge failure and blow to addressing climate change.

    I believe the readings this week provide an interesting potential response to the type of argument described above. Although China, India, and co. recognize that climate change has negative effects in the long term, I am not sure if many of them realize the current national security impacts it has. Moreover, as demonstrated in the reports by Hsiang et al. and the DoD, the most devastating effects of climate change tend to occur in developing countries. Thus, instead of trying to convince developing countries to reduce emissions by appealing to the need to take care of future generations, perhaps we could instead appeal to the immediate and threat multiplying effects climate change has on these countries even today. While a developing country’s cost-benefit analysis might preference economic growth today over a bad global environment decades from now, that analysis may change if it internalizes the national security and economic threats that climate change currently already poses.

  8. While I agree with the DoD’s assessment that climate change “will aggravate existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions” (3), I believe that the report overlooks a key issue: the financial and political costs of implementing a project to combat the effects of climate change.

    The costs of such a project would be immense. Let’s look at the idea proposed by Barrett, et al., to apply “geoengineering…[through] [s]tratospheric injection of sulphate aerosols” (527). According to Robock, et al., “the annual costs of injecting aerosol precursors into the lower stratosphere would be several billion dollars…[and] [u]sing artillery or balloons to loft the gas would be much more expensive” (1). Clearly, not only would this plan already be a huge investment, but there are also other costs (both financial and political) that would surface due to some of the “potential negative effects” (2) that Robock, et al. mention. For example, “less sunlight for solar power” (1) certainly has countless inherent costs: How will the decrease in sunlight affect our crops and food production? If there is an issue, how will the United States subsidize its farmers? Will there be issues for other countries’ food production? If so, how will the United States subsidize them or arrange some other agreement? Would there be any political backlash domestically or internationally if the United States implemented this plan? There are many other examples besides food production, but it is apparent that any plan to combat climate change would need to factor in the extra financial and/or political costs inherent in any action and would also need to accurately account for these extra costs in the plan’s implementation.

  9. The Defense Department’s report on climate-related security risks is a useful data point for legislators, who can use it as reference to substantiate lawmaking in the future. Unfortunately, however, little more can be said of the report. Consider the context under which it was released: Congress had previously requested the Department generate the report. What was driving that, though, could have been a number of things, including political reasons. After all, it is easy for Congress to tell the Department to write a $22,000 report, but more difficult for lawmakers to appropriate more money for DoD to actually combat climate change.

    This comment stems from the fact that, particularly on the matter of climate change, current politics have created a literally toxic mode of operation on the Hill. Because of the way politicians in Congress, and particularly the House, are elected, very little in the way of meaningful legislation — such as that to take significant steps to realistically combat climate change — is able to pass. Representatives in the House have two year terms. This means they have to start thinking about reelection on day one, and from there, money drives everything; it is why lobbyists, who can influence political careers by leveraging their clients’ funds, have such clout in Washington. On matters like climate change impact, and particularly those related more to climate mitigation than adaption, there are a huge number of interested companies with large capital arms ready to be wielded to stop legislation that would slow the inertia of their business. Due to the escalating costs of running a modern campaign, politicians in the House are forced to pander to the interests of those companies in order to prolong their careers in office, which in turn defeats meaningful legislation on the occasions it gets introduced.

    Meaningful legislation could entail, for example, law that requires Defense to appropriate funds to actually support some of the public infrastructures to some degree. That is not to say that such things are not being legislated at present; they are, but not on a large enough scale to combat climate change. All we have been able to accomplish of yet are small actions of mitigation and adaptation. We need only point to the Obama Administration to see these dynamics in action. WIth his Clean Power Plan and Climate Action Plan, the President hopes to take serious steps to combat climate change, including with the international community in the form of INdia and China, but he has vowed to do all of this without the help of Congress. Why? Because he and his legislative aides have realized that, because of the way Congress operates, it is impossible right now to pass meaningful legislation. This has to change.

  10. I think one of the reasons other nations are looking to us to combat climate change is because we are a wealthy, affluent nation that has often sought to lead. Most importantly, however, we are seen as a nation with the privilege, no just funds but technology and intelligence and resources, to work on this issue. A while ago, there was a young woman, probably in her mid 20s, who went viral for being able to fit all of her trash from the last year in a mason jar. She had spent quite a bit of time trying to become waste-free, and the young urban creatives on the internet couldn’t get enough of her and her environmentally friendly ways. However, one of the largest criticisms of her lifestyle was that one had to enjoy incredible privilege in order to maintain it. She had to buy all of her food fresh from farmers markets, which costs a substantial amount more than buying less eco-friendly options at a grocery store. This same idea can be translated to climate change– it takes quite a bit of resources, money, and intelligence to make a country more sustainable and to combat the already destructive effects of climate change.

    Moreover, I think other nations might react in a similar manner to the way our population seems to be reacting right now– while there is a strong contingent of people who believe climate change should be a number one priority, there are so many costs that are more immediate than the threat of climate change. While yes, the current professional opinion is that climate change is an immediate threat, the population doesn’t see it that way and can only see the very real, very costly effects of the policies we want to put in place. I believe that other nations might applaud us for our efforts, but decide it’s not the right thing for their nation at that time.

  11. The Department of Defense is, to a significant extent, restrained by the budgetary and legislative realities of the current political environment, in its ability to structure defense policy to address climate change. Indeed, it is to policymakers’ credit within the Department that they produced, and submitted to Congress, the July 2015 report, given the hostility of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to the idea of a government response to climate change. It is clear from the report that the Department and the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) are altering policy to the greatest possible extent within these political confines; however, the US government clearly needs to do more to mitigate the effects of climate change, both on the US and on countries around the world.

    While many policy proposals have been made over the last decade, the two that have received the most serious consideration from policymakers, scientists, and economists are a “carbon tax” on CO2 emissions and a “cap-and-trade” emissions-market regime. A substantive response by the US government and other countries would likely have to require one of these systems. While the Department of Defense has devoted much effort, through the GCCs, to aid foreign governments in developing their national security responses to climate change, this cannot represent the entirety of the nation’s effort to aid the international community in confronting the problem; diplomatic efforts should be made to introduce effective domestic policies for lowering carbon emissions in other countries.

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