Anyone living under a rock for the last three weeks may be unaware of a new, award-winning movie sweeping streaming media and generating Twitter-worthy chatter. The tongue-in-cheek terror of “Don’t Look Up” tells the tale of two midlevel astronomers trying to warn the world of an approaching, apocalypse-inducing comet. Politicians, media talking heads and the public — now firmly rooted in their science-denying ways — mock them and ignore their warnings.
It doesn’t take a theatrical allegory science degree to pick up on Hollywood’s not-so-subtle (but also not-exactly-inaccurate) statement about America’s overarching apathy toward global climate change. Last May, the Pew Research Center surveyed more than 16,000 people around the globe about how much they’d be willing to adjust their lifestyles to prevent future climate change catastrophe. Americans — more than nearly all the other nations surveyed — were far and away the most resistant to changing their behavior. Even more concerning, Pew found the reason for each stance was almost exclusively tied to the respondent’s political leanings.
The U.S. Defense Department is not immune to conflict surrounding its response to climate change. Perhaps more understandable than mere political theatrics, the DoD must also focus on lethality, efficiency and speed. When asked about climate change concerns, some military planners assert they have “more relevant and dangerous” threats to consider first. This argument may hold water in the extremely short term, but it loses all credibility beyond even the most immediate concerns. Global climate change is more than bigger snowstorms and warmer summers; it represents one of the most acute and dangerous threats our national security establishment has ever known.
Even the casual observer can watch the effects of climate change in our daily lives. Wildfires and droughts are continuously searing the western United States; hurricanes and floods are pummeling coastal regions; larger and more deadly storms are sweeping across the plains; severe weather events are more powerful, last longer and claim more lives than ever before.
In the last decade, dozens of U.S. military installations were impacted by — or in the case of Tyndall Air Force Base in 2018, completely destroyed by — increasingly violent, severe weather. The dangerous effects of global climate change — long discussed in the future tense by military planners — are now clearly on our doorstep.
The insidious rises in sea level and temperature are making the storms bigger, more frequent and deadlier. The DoD’s 2019 “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense” identified 79 military installations put at risk by climate change, and significant money and effort is being spent protecting them from future “weather attacks.”
However, it’s not just key strategic installations at risk. The DoD’s 2021 “Climate Risk Analysis” states that “climate change is reshaping the geostrategic, operational, and tactical environments with significant implications for U.S. national security and defense.” Former Arctic ice sheets are now open water and being militarized by America’s competitors. The U.S. is being called upon more frequently for humanitarian responses. Climate migration is driving conflict, instability and strife, and is expected to increase to unmanageable levels within two decades. Domestically, severe weather and rising sea levels threaten our electrical grids, transportation infrastructure and financial systems. Overseas, America’s increased reliance on what then-Lt. Gen. James Mattis once called “the tether of [fossil] fuels” poses a serious supply chain vulnerability.
Taken individually, each of these threats would constitute a serious crisis for military planners. Combined, they should command our full attention. Even from a military perspective — especially from a military perspective — America’s “Don’t Look Up” moment is here. Now.
The Manhattan Project
America faced another “Don’t Look Up” moment in which the U.S. military, teaming with the greatest scientific minds of a generation, ushered the free world to safety and security. On Jan. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt — faced with a seemingly endless world war as well as countless future human lives and resources at stake — officially approved the production of America’s first atomic bomb. In a time when the U.S. military was called upon to prevent catastrophe, the Manhattan Project was born.
This kind of unifying, science-based, goals-driven approach is exactly what America needs to lead the world in combatting climate change. A “Manhattan Project for Climate Security” can be — and should be — established by the Defense Department as soon as possible. Except this time, the goal won’t be an implement of destruction but rather a tool of global preservation. The DoD, unlike any other federal agency, is uniquely qualified with the preestablished national laboratories, academic relationships and (most critically) the budgets to undertake such a task. What’s more, it has plenty of “paying it forward” to do in terms of climate impact.
Most Americans would be stunned to discover just how much fossil fuel its military regularly consumes. According to research by the Department of Energy and Brown University’s “Costs of War” project, the DoD is responsible for the vast majority of the U.S. government’s fossil fuel use: more than 648 trillion British thermal units in 2020. That’s more than triple the consumption of every other U.S. government agency combined. The Defense Department is the single largest institutional emitter of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the world.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s October 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan is an excellent start, even if it focuses primarily on mitigating the effects of global climate change rather than the DoD’s contribution to climate change. Even so, efforts across the DoD are bringing us closer to a stronger, more resilient and more sustainable force. Just a few weeks ago, the Army released it’s first-ever climate strategy, and the Air Force Research Laboratory are developing alternative, low- or zero-carbon-emitting energy sources.
But that’s not enough. Even if the entire DoD went zero carbon today, it would still barely move the world’s climate change needle. Where the DoD can make meaningful change, however, is through a Manhattan Project-style initiative — except expanded globally. This focused effort would broaden global influence and maximize scientific research. Few institutions wield the DoD’s budget or capacity for innovation. DoD inventors brought us radar technology, the microwave, the internet — even the first significant research linking climate change to human-created CO2 emissions was DoD-funded.
Now is the time for a DoD-led “Manhattan Project for Climate Security.” Just as it’s done throughout America’s history, the U.S. military has the capability — and moral obligation — to lead America into a more sustainable future.
Lt. Col. Theodore “Doc” Shanks is a C-17A command pilot with the U.S. Air Force as well as a national defense fellow and visiting scholar at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, where he researches climate security and the effects of Air Force operations on global climate change. The views expressed in this commentary represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Defense Department or the Department of the Air Force.