The new House budget would boost funding for the military’s Overseas Contingency Operations account. It would also slash funding for military climate change research, which seeks to prepare for contingency operations before they are necessary. The irony is likely lost on the authors of the House budget plan, which will guide final decisions on spending cuts—while seeking to eliminate wasteful spending, they disregard the risks of climate change that expose the United States to the high cost of confronting new security threats unprepared.

Due to its ambiguous phrasing, the budget plan could presage a campaign to take a hatchet to the military’s broad portfolio of climate change adaptation efforts.  As passed by the House, the plan sets a deadline of October 1 to “cut waste, eliminate redundancies and end the abuse or misuse of taxpayer dollars,” and it specifically targets the Department of Defense (DOD) for spending “part of their budget studying climate change.” But there is no single DOD climate change line item—rather, the military’s efforts to understand and prepare for climate change are dispersed throughout its services and operations. These efforts complement, rather than duplicate, research elsewhere in the government to understand climate change, because the military’s interest lies in safeguarding national security from potential consequences of climate change, not making a political statement about its causes.


Viewed through a national security lens, the consequences of climate change are coming into sharp focus. For example, melting Arctic ice is giving way to a new ocean, opening shipping lanes and uncovering massive oil and gas reserves—one quarter of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable petroleum—but the U.S. Navy will need to deploy new equipment and technology to operate in cold and icy waters . Failure to forecast the emergence of a new maritime theater could set the United States back strategically, as Russia and China increase their presence in the Arctic to claim both resources and territory.

In addition to melting ice, weather patterns could change, increasing the frequency of droughts and storms alike—these trends are of crucial concern to the military. Drought in Syria, possibly due to climate change, may have caused or accelerated civil unrest; cyclones and hurricanes in highly populated tropical regions may occur more frequently, triggering humanitarian disasters. Effective military missions to stabilize strategic regions and deliver humanitarian assistance depend on appropriate resource decisions that take into account a changing climate.

And whether at home or abroad, military bases are sinking as sea levels rise from climate change. Bases along the Atlantic seaboard, like the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Va., may be severely compromised within 25 years—Pacific island bases may suffer a similar fate even sooner. If inadequate foresight precludes the military from gradually relocating or reinforcing its assets, a future Congress may have to foot the bill for a flooded base. That certainly resembles the waste that current lawmakers want to eliminate.

Planning for future contingencies does not require the military to make value judgments on the causes or certainty of those contingencies. Many of the effects of climate change—like sea level rise and Arctic ice melt—are already visible. But some, such as the link between conflict and climate or the increased incidence of tropical cyclones, are still debated in serious, scientific fora.  In a DOD report released last year on the risks of climate change to national security, former Secretary of Defense Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelAlmost 100 former officials, members of Congress urge Senate action on election security GOP Senate candidate said Republicans have 'dual loyalties' to Israel White House aide moves to lobbying firm MORE admitted that scientific “uncertainty remains. But this cannot be an excuse for delaying action. Every day, our military deals with global uncertainty.” Hagel, formerly a Republican senator, framed the military’s concern about climate change as apolitical and directly analogous to concerns about more conventional global threats.

The authors of the House budget plan nevertheless politicize the military’s climate change research. This accusation of DOD complicity in a climate conspiracy is not new. Last year’s military appropriations bill included a similar ban on military climate research—the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyKoch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill 'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership The missing piece of the current health care debate MORE (R-W.Va.), sought to “maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.” Although the Senate eliminated last year’s provision, this year’s chamber could turn political grandstanding into legislative action.

But the budget plan conflates research to establish man-made climate change—a politically inflammatory subject—with the military’s pragmatic, apolitical contingency planning. Even where the military does conduct fundamental climate research, contributing Air Force weather readings to the National Climate Assessment, its efforts are complementary to interagency efforts, not redundant or wasteful. If the authors of the budget plan are really seeking to cut duplicative research on climate change to trim a bloated budget, the DOD is not the place to look.

A less sanguine reading of the House budget plan suggests that the broad portfolio of DOD climate change adaptation initiatives presents an opportunity to cut substantial amounts of funding. That would be an ill-advised gamble, exposing the military to security contingencies for which it will be unprepared.

Sivaram is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.