National security and climate change

Anyone who has spent time in and around the armed forces and/or the intelligence agencies of the United States will agree — whether you always like what they do or not — that these are serious institutions staffed by serious people. The contrast with the political arena can be stark. In politics, there is plenty of room for theater, ideological posturing and disregard for inconvenient facts. There is far less of that in the Pentagon or at the CIA, for the simple reason that these institutions are dealing directly with real threats to American interests and security. Misreading threats can be lethal; wishful thinking can get you killed. Consequently, these institutions invest heavily in gathering and assessing real information — as the basis for planning and implementing countermeasures against threats of all kinds.

Environmental issues, particularly those around climate change, are a major case in point. As the scientific consensus around global warming became definitive, senior leaders in both the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies saw it as imperative to understand what was happening, assess the implications for U.S. military and intelligence operations and present those findings to the rest of the government. The resulting documentary record includes:

  • A 2007 report by the Center for Naval Analysis that identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” for instability and conflict in many of the most volatile regions of the world.
  • A 2008 National Intelligence Council summation of the consensus views of U.S. intelligence agencies that climate change would pose major challenges to U.S. national security.
  • The Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that found climate change will accelerate food and water scarcity and the spread of disease as well as uncontrolled migration.
  • The National Security Strategy released the same year concluded that climate change will lead to new conflicts over resources (including fisheries), new refugee flows, new suffering from drought and famine, catastrophic natural disasters and degradation of arable lands across the globe.

Many of these conclusions are presented in fairly broad, general terms. In the years since 2010, U.S. security agencies have increasingly focused on specific climate-related threats. In this limited space, we can touch on only a few of these.

  • Military bases: This strikes very close to home, as the Pentagon studies have identified a wide range of military facilities vulnerable to the effects of climate change — including sea level rise and increasingly intense storms. One very specific example involves the ballistic missile defense installations in the Marshall Islands (South Pacific), which will be inundated by rising seas within 20 years. The world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Va., is threatened by rising seas and more violent hurricanes.
  • Disaster response: An increasing proportion of military budgets are being allocated to disaster response and relief. This is particularly true for the U.S. Pacific Command. In 2015, the Navy responded to devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan in the central Philippines by airlifting 750,000 pounds of relief supplies along with 1,200 first responders — while extracting 5,640 storm victims to safety. At home, the National Guard mobilized nearly 25,000 personnel to assist with relief and recovery from Super Storm Sandy in 2012. As the number and intensity of floods and tornadoes grows across the Midwest, so will the demand for National Guard resources.
  • Instability and conflict: Last week, a senior intelligence official testified before Congress that, “In the coming two decades, we assess that an increasing number of countries will encounter climate-related hazards — such as extreme weather events, drought or infrastructural damage — that stress their capacity to respond, cope or adapt.” He cited a number of specific cases including West Africa, where environmental stress has clear links to a rise in terrorist activity — engaging U.S. Special Forces. Another arena is the Arctic, where warming oceans will mean summers entirely free of ice in little more than a decade. Already “Russia and China are dramatically increasing their activities in the Arctic” with direct implications for U.S. security.
  • Migration: The same official noted that climate change is already destroying the livelihood of vulnerable farmers and herders in much of the world. The World Bank projects that a warming climate will “push tens of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America to migrate.”
  • Syria: U.S. intelligence analysts and military planners need look no further than Syria to see a dystopian climate-driven future. A near decade of brutal civil war has driven millions to flee the country while drawing in both American and Russian military forces. The origins of this war are hugely complex but climate is near the center. Since 2006, Syria has experienced the “worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” As the rural economy broke down migration to the cities swelled — and with it the ranks of the unemployed and discontented. ISIS long viewed rural deprivation as a source of anger and despair that provided recruits for the jihadists. In the wake of ISIS’s apparent defeat, many farmers in Syria and Iraq returned to their land to replant. However, just as the grain crop began to mature, thousands of acres went up in flames started by remaining ISIS supporters and sustained by abnormally hot weather.

An intelligence official at the State Department in prepared congressional testimony summarized the consensus of American intelligence and defense agencies: “The Earth’s climate is unequivocally undergoing a long-term warming trend … We see few plausible future scenarios where significant — possibly catastrophic — harm does not arise from the compounded effects of climate change.” However, this testimony was never delivered. The White House blocked it because it did not “jibe” with the President’s view that global warming is a “hoax.”

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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