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False choices and climate security

When Congress declared climate change to be a direct threat to national security in 2017, it cited both the effects of extreme weather on installations and observations by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that climate change was affecting stability around the world — and thereby affecting our deployed forces. It was not a “green mandate” put in environmental terms; it was about direct effects to our military capacity.

That theme held fast in the official climate strategies issued in recent years, by both the Department of Defense and the military services (Army, Navy and Air Force) themselves. Each of these plans lead with the need to maintain warfighting capability and describe actions to maintain it in the face of a changing climate.

Still, critics often return to the concept that preparing for climate change means that the Department is shirking its other priorities. On the contrary, if it is remiss in meeting any of its responsibilities, effort on climate security is not the cause. 

Take the recent criticism during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing implying that the release of the Navy’s climate strategy in May 2022 had something to do with the Navy’s required shipbuilding plan being late or inadequate. 

Senators of both parties were distressed about both the late delivery of the shipbuilding plan and its content. But that responsibility lies with the Navy’s acquisition and budget leaders, not with the assistant secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment, the person who led development of the climate strategy. It is flawed logic to suggest that the Navy’s desire to prepare for and reduce climate risks had any impact on how many ships it plans to buy. The Navy has a large staff, and it can certainly focus on more than one issue at a time.

I remember seeing this unhelpful framing in the past. In 2014, I led an effort within the Pentagon to develop its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which then-Secretary Chuck Hagel presented at the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Lima, Peru. The topic of the meeting was environmental security, and the roadmap was on topic. Yet the response from critics in Washington was focused not on the content of the report – which was about preparing for climate risks – but rather on the fact that the Department released this report when ISIS had not yet been defeated. 

This kind of false choice echoes the questions that witnesses have been asked in past hearings about whether senior officials believe climate change is a bigger priority than China, as if one must address only one or the other. A more appropriate line of questioning would be on the ways climate change affects decisionmaking in China, how it shapes the threats posed by China or how it affects our ability to respond. 

In fact, climate change shapes the security views of potential partners in the Pacific, some of whom see climate change as an existential risk. When we ignore their concerns, it pushes them closer to China as a partner (as my organization has been warning for years).

In addition, climate risks threaten our installations in the region and impose constraints we must accommodate even as we remain focused on China as a “pacing threat.” 

Moreover, climate change has prompted China to expand its presence in the Arctic — even making the dubious claim that it is a near-Arctic Nation to justify its ambitions.  Whether it is through investments in developing nations, expanding its presence in the Arctic or even its efforts to dominate strategic minerals markets critical to the energy transition, the Chinese government is clearly posturing to increase its influence in a world shaped by climate change. The U.S. cedes China an advantage if it does not incorporate future conditions into its plans.

A different version of the false choice was presented earlier this year in a Readiness Subcommittee hearing within the House Armed Services Committee. The committee chairman warned the Pentagon not to sacrifice warfighting capability to meet climate goals. 

Again, that’s an easy bar because the military’s climate priorities are focused on increasing capability, not trading it off. The largest single climate program within the Department of Defense budget request is the Energy Resilience and Conservation Investment Program, which is making investments at military installations to ensure energy remains available for critical missions. That resilience provides mission assurance not only in cases of grid failure due to extreme weather but also in cases of physical and cyber-driven failures. 

If this false dichotomy drives budget decisions that reduce climate resilience efforts, the net effect will be to maintain a dangerous vulnerability that will undermine military capability into the future. That’s not a choice anybody supports.

John Conger is the director emeritus of the Center for Climate and Security and the former principal deputy under secretary of Defense (comptroller).

Tags Biden climate agenda China Chuck Hagel Climate change Climate change policy Climate security Defense Department House Armed Services Committee James Mattis Senate Armed Services Committee

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