Climate security Is national security
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The year is 2057, and the sailors at Naval Station Norfolk are scrambling. Much of the home base of the Atlantic Fleet is underwater, thanks to a stronger-than-expected hurricane. Across the waters of Hampton Roads, the soldiers and airmen are fighting the storm surge at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, which has been hit even harder. Making matters worse, the call just came from Washington – another carrier group needs to be sent to the Mediterranean immediately, to help stabilize a flash point in the Global War on Resource Scarcity.

Such a scenario may seem farfetched, but it is perfectly plausible in the not-too-distant future. As ranking member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, my focus is looking beyond the horizon to the new threats our country will face, and I have examined emerging challenges like the proliferation of terrorism, the escalation of cyber attacks, and the threats posed by rising powers. The strength of the U.S. military is its rapid flexibility to respond to an evolving national security landscape, and Congress has worked to give our armed forces the resources they need to prepare for these threats. But there is one emergent, long-term issue that Congress has consistently failed to address – the threat of climate change.  

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The impacts of climate change are real, and the effects of a changing global climate will be devastating to our armed forces. We already know that climate change is a threat multiplier. The volatility unleashed by a warming earth – drought and desertification, rising tides and storm surges, brutal wildfires and erratic growing seasons – is immensely destabilizing. As the environment changes, we will see increased migration, more frequent humanitarian crises, and more competition for natural resources, all drivers of conflict. Anticipating these threats must be a part of our national security strategy.

The Department of Defense acknowledges this. When asked, Secretary James Mattis has stated that “the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.  I will ensure that the Department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.” Republican leadership must now allow the secretary to make good on that commitment.

For our military bases at home and abroad, increasingly hostile weather will impede our ability to conduct normal operations. Effects from rising tides will be felt at bases from Parris Island to Key West, from Pearl Harbor-Hickam to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. At our inland bases, flash fires and freak storms will impair training and other preparations. A 2016 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that many of our Atlantic and Gulf bases will suffer ten times the number of floods within a few decades.

Additionally, climate change will create new challenges for our allies across the globe. The thawing of the Arctic will establish new, direct sea lanes between oceans and continents. Russia and other nations have already asserted their influence in this sphere. If we are to continue to project American influence, we must be ready to protect our national interests given these new realities.

We must also recognize where American readiness is most at risk. That analysis begins by allowing the department to do its job – to study where our vulnerabilities are and find solutions to overcome them – rather than impeding Mattis in the service of some political agenda.

Today, I’m leading an effort, along with all of my Democratic counterparts on the House Armed Services Committee, to ensure that planning for climate resilience is a part of our national security strategy. We often discuss climate change in terms of its economic impact, trying to balance the costs of carbon controls with their environmental benefits. But as public officials with an obligation to provide for our national security, adding climate change to that cost-benefit equation for defense is long overdue.

Only through sober analysis and dutiful execution can we be prepared for this new reality. We cannot afford to cling to presumptions of the past any more than we can believe that wooden ships will win the next war.  If we apply the same ingenuity and diligence as we do to other national security challenges, we can lead the charge in how we adapt to, mitigate and ultimately counter the threat of climate change.

Langevin is ranking member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.