The US military leads on climate change

As the just-released 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review affirms, the U.S. military considers climate change a threat to national security. Yet after Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in Jakarta, Indonesia, comparing climate change to other transnational security threats, his remarks were considered by some in the media as extraordinary.

The truth is that the U.S. military reached this conclusion long ago.

Indeed, Kerry was directly following the lead of four-star Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear II, head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), who in a speech in Jakarta a year earlier also identified climate change as the biggest security threat facing the region, with the capacity to even “threaten the loss of entire nations.”

Just last November, Kerry’s counterpart in the Department of Defense, Secretary Chuck Hagel, asserted that climate change “can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” And in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, released on March 4, the Department of Defense notes: "The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

While the U.S. Congress is still locked in a partisan debate over climate change, the U.S. military is already taking a proactive approach to this national security threat. In Asia, U.S. Pacific Command is working with China, India and other regional allies to align military capabilities for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”

In the wake of Typhoon Yolanda – one of the deadliest typhoons on record and the kind of disaster we may see more of in a climate-changing world - the U.S. military was on the ground in the Philippines within days and ready to assist. At its peak, the relief efforts involved more than 13,400 U.S. military personnel, 66 aircraft and 12 naval vessels. American troops ran airfields, purified water, distributed aid and evacuated more than 21,000 people - and other U.S. government agencies, like USAID, remain to assist with the recovery effort.

But more such disasters in the future, and the resultant instability that could occur, may tax even the U.S. military’s capacity to respond effectively, which means that climate preparedness on all levels from the international to the local will be critical. As Admiral Locklear also mentioned in Jakarta, in reference to the climate threat to growing coastal populations: “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.’’

But you don’t have to go half way around the world to see how climate change can lead to crumbling security. Take the United States – a resilient nation, but not invulnerable - as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the ongoing droughts and wildfires in the American West.  

The future is likely to bring us more floods, more droughts, and more severe and rarely-experienced weather events – events that will threaten to inundate our coastal towns, cities and naval bases with seawater. For example, the Norfolk Naval Base, and the entire Hampton Roads region, is already facing the challenges of sea level rise. Without further preparedness, there remain a lot of people and vital infrastructure in harm’s way.

Despite what you may hear from the Congress, there is a growing consensus in the U.S. military that climate change is a significant threat to national and international security, and that something significant needs to be done to combat it, just as our military plans for numerous other threats to our nation. Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel and Admiral Locklear recognize this, and it is time our policy-makers in Congress did too.

Castellaw is president of the
Crockett Policy Institute, and a member of the Advisory Board at the Center for Climate and Security. Titley is director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, and also a member of the Advisory Board at the Center for Climate and Security.

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