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Department of Defense on Climate Change? It's a National Security Concern

Department of Defense on Climate Change? It's a National Security Concern

On September 21, 2016, President Obama released a Presidential Moratorium. Its focus? That climate change poses a significant and growing threat to our national security, both at home and abroad. Climate change consequences we already experience – food insecurity, resource depletion, ocean acidification, wildfires and drought, and rising sea levels – compound delicate international relations.

When disasters strike, our troops are the first to respond. Climate change is exacerbating natural weather patterns, inciting violence, factions, and refugee crises.


Want an Example? Take Climate Change and the Syrian Crisis

Photograph courtesy of Politico.

Photograph courtesy of Politico.

A familiar example is found in that of Syria’s refugee crisis. To date, over 4.8 million Syrian civilians have fled the country for Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The world has clung to the harrowing stories of the men, women and children stripped of their possessions and livelihoods; the ricocheting waves of distrust and anti-immigrant politics in the European Union; and the battered, barren landscapes left behind.

Leading to its recent uprising, Syria was well-acquainted with governmental corruption, radicalism, inequality, and massive population growth. But a recent report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uncovers the natural disaster that catalyzed the country’s unravelling.

According to the report’s co-author Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, extreme water shortages “drove up food prices, sickened children, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts.” This drought is the most severe on record, and, according to Seager, aligns with current trends expected with rising temperatures.

Scientists and the U.S. military have argued for years that rising temperatures will likely spur waves of human migration and battles over increasingly scarce resources—particularly water.
— Craig Welch, National Geographic

The DoD’s Four Climate-Related Security Risks:

1)      The Repeat Offenders, i.e. flooding, drought, and higher temperatures.

The United States military is present is 156 nations with the purpose to maintain and advance U.S. interests. This capability, however, depends on an "assumption of climate stability - including the stability of the 95, 471 miles of coastline which 1,774 U.S. military sites reside across the globe." 

For example, military transportation, command and control, intelligence, and deployment hubs risk erratic power outages, and Department of Defense operations will become more costly in response to constant disturbances. These disturbances can even affect our ability to maintain peace and deter enemies. 

As for humanitarian missions and objectives, these conditions impose strain on fragile states and vulnerable populations who are unable to respond to disturbances. This leads to conflict, violence, and the spread of infectious diseases. This can and already has resulted in mass-migration, as seen in Syria from 2006 to 2011.

2)      More frequent and/or severe extreme weather events require substantial involvement of DoD units, personnel, and assets in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Take the massive flooding in Pakistan in 2010. It was the country’s worst in history, killing more than 2,000 people and affecting 18 million. This about of damage required our country’s DoD humanitarian relief.

An example closer to home is that of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Over 14,000 DoD personnel mobilized, and an additional 10,000 supported their operations to restore power, provide temporary housing and shelter, and remove debris. 

Speaking of which, the vulnerability of our electricity grid to these growing extreme weather events makes it a national security issue of its own right. The second installment of the Quadrennial Energy Review highlights the "weak-link issue" prevailing our grid. What does this mean? This means that our country's 7,700 power plants (ranging from coal-fired to nuclear) and 55,800 substations are linked only by 707,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. This archaic system is no match to modern "smart meters," individual and community solar power, and natural gas-powered systems. 

 The threats of storms like these, as well as coastal flooding, are increasing dramatically.

3)      Sea level rise and temperature changes leads to greater chance of flooding along the coast, as well as concerns for marine navigation safety, damages to port facilities, and displaced populations.

Resources will be required to protect coastal military units, both in the United States and abroad. Additionally, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and increased ocean warming pose threats to fish stocks, coral, mangroves, recreation and tourism, and the control of disease affecting fish stocks, and ultimately, the stability of U.S. partner nations. Loss of land – particularly loss of nutrient-rich or agricultural land – can lead to severe and often dangerous instability. This can pose second-order effects such as human displacement, violence and conflict for limited resources, and exacerbate disease.

According to the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), the DoD's environmental research program, potential risks to coastal military installations include:

  • Loss or damage to mission essential infrastructure including coastal development; energy and water infrastructure;
  • Loss or degradation of mission capabilities
  • Loss of training and testing lands, including beaches and barrier islands;
  • Loss of transportation means, facilities, and/or corridors;
  • Loss of habitat and associated natural resources;
  • Increased risk of storm damage and coastal erosion; and,
  • Increased potential for loss of life.
Climate change will affect DoD in two broad ways: First, climate change will shape the
operating environment, roles and missions that we undertake. Second, DoD will need to
adjust to the impacts of climate change on our facilities and military capabilities.
— 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review
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