When U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released the Pentagon’s new Climate Risk Analysis, he acknowledged “climate change touches most of what this department does,” adding “this threat will continue to have worsening implications for U.S. national security.”
The Defense Department now recognizes climate change is a threat multiplier and must be incorporated into all aspects of defense strategy, planning and force posture. The Defense Climate Risk Assessment, or DCRA, directs DoD to incorporate climate risks into all key DoD documents and planning processes, from strategy and planning and force management, to budget and partner activities.
The enormity of this task should not be underestimated; these are the very wheels that make DoD move. While climate considerations have been included in the National Defense Strategy since at least 2008, they have not been fully incorporated into the force planning and budget processes. As is often said in the Pentagon, “strategy without budget is hallucination.” Now, that is set to change.
The change can’t happen soon enough. As the DCRA makes clear, the Defense Department is already experiencing climate hazards on a daily basis. From regular sunny day flooding at Norfolk Naval Base, home to the military’s largest complex of vulnerable bases, to destructive hurricanes which destroyed significant parts of bases in Florida and North Carolina, the U.S. military has to manage climate risks as part of keeping our troops ready to fight.
Higher temperatures have led to more “black flag” days when our troops can’t safely train, leading to readiness loss. To combat persistent wildfires in the west, our forces support civilian firefighters, adding to their own health risk and undermining training for other missions.
At the same time, climate change is emboldening our adversaries around the world.
In the Arctic, retreating sea ice, thawing permafrost, and rising temperatures are “creating a new frontier of geostrategic competition,” according to the DoD climate risk report.
Russia has ambitious plans for shipping across the Northern Sea Route, backed by increasing military capability to operate in more open Arctic waters. China envisions a “Polar Silk Road” connecting ports from Shanghai to Rotterdam, and is building Arctic capabilities to connect its vast global transportation and influence network.
In the Indo-Pacific, sea level rise, higher temperatures and more extreme weather events are helping China gain influence. Take the highly vulnerable Pacific Island nations that face existential climate risk in the coming decades. These small island nations, built on atolls, are contending with the loss of their fresh water supplies from saltwater intrusion and rising sea levels that could submerge their low-lying territories.
Some, like Kiribati, have already purchased land elsewhere to provide future safe harbor for their people. China is moving to position itself as the humanitarian assistance provider of first resort to these countries, some of which, like Fiji, have already shifted their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing.
It is common in defense circles these days to refer to China as the “pacing threat” against which to measure and prepare U.S. military capability. If that’s the case, climate change is not only a “threat multiplier,” but also the “shaping threat” directly affecting America’s military capability. Our troops will need to be able to train and operate in both hotter and colder temperatures; our weapons systems will need to be more survivable and more energy efficient; and our bases will need to be hardened against climate risks.
The good news is DoD is hard at work at integrating climate risk across every element of the defense enterprise. When climate risk and opportunity for resilience is reflected in the full range of DoD budgets, from weapons systems to health, to training and security cooperation, to military construction, then the department will have built a climate-resilient force. And it will provide competitive and technological advantage to lead by example in clean and resilient energy systems and climate risk analytics that can help us better predict our future.
Our climate is already changing. The question is whether our human systems can keep pace.
Sherri Goodman is secretary general of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, senior strategist at the Center for Climate and Security and chair of the board at the Council on Strategic Risks. She served as the first U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security from 1993-2001.