Climate change threatens the backbone of America’s global power
As hurricane season deals out more damage, world leaders soon will gather for Climate Week in the aftermath of the hottest recorded month in human history — a July that brought Arctic wildfires, melting glaciers and the wipeout of virgin forests. Our planet’s climate crisis is becoming a grave, growing danger to the security of the United States, a threat multiplier that our intelligence community has been warning about for a dozen years.
Our military leaders also are growing blunt. “Climate change is no longer a future threat — it is taking place now,” a blue-ribbon group of retired three- and four-star flag officers warned half a decade ago. As the evidence piles up, senior military leaders have dubbed the threat “strategically significant” and issued dire warnings about the potential impact of sea level rise on the military’s mission. These warnings have continued during this administration, including a recent U.S. Army War College report acknowledging that the military is “precariously unprepared” for threats stemming from extreme weather and environmental destruction.
Indeed, former Defense Secretary James Mattis calls the changing climate “a driver of instability” that will catalyze conflict and put more U.S. troops in harm’s way. Across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, global warming is fueling shortages, mass migrations and a new generation of climate refugees who threaten political stability and civil society. Record droughts feed the anarchy that fuels the Syrian civil war, driving farmers from their barren land to urban centers and triggering food shortages.
Excessive heat could make parts of India, Pakistan and China virtually uninhabitable by the end of this century. As more of the world’s population flocks to vulnerable cities and coasts, climate change also aggravates the kind of poverty, social tensions and health catastrophes that create a ripe climate for terrorism and other violence — which tempts our adversaries to take advantage of chaos.
Meanwhile, as more Arctic ice melts, Russia and China are moving to exert control over polar trade routes and newly available resources. They’re busy investing in icebreakers to help navigate newly open waters, even as the U.S. relies on a single working Coast Guard icebreaker.
In addition to causing headaches for U.S. military planners, climate change directly threatens our troops and our capacity to defend ourselves in a dangerous world. In the North Pacific, rising seas threaten to inundate the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, a strategic location for monitoring and tracking missile threats from North Korea, Russia and China.
The military has designated dozens of its bases as vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather caused by the climate crisis. Last year, Hurricane Michael damaged 40 percent of the F-22 fighters stationed at Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, where planes undergoing maintenance couldn’t be moved in time. Michael barely missed devastating Patrick AFB, which launches intelligence satellites to track rapidly developing threats, and where the Air Force monitors compliance with nuclear weapons treaties.
In addition to driving up dangerous infectious diseases in a growing number of hotspots where our troops could be deployed, extreme heat is causing a surge in “black flag” days of high heat that pose a deadly threat to our men and women in uniform. During the past decade, heat exhaustion episodes in the military spiked 60 percent, the rate of heat stroke doubled in the Marine Corps, and 17 troops died of heat exposure. This growing toll has cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion.
Our aircraft will not perform as well under more stressful climate conditions. New research shows that as the environment grows hotter and more humid, military aircraft won’t be able to carry as much or travel as far without refueling. More missions will be scrapped or limited when heat and humidity hamper aircraft performance.
Climate change also threatens the infrastructure that is the backbone of America’s global power and national security. Extreme heat is harming our roads, railways and airport runways. Worsening hurricanes, higher floods and rising seas are battering the coastal areas that house many of our nation’s power plants, transmission lines, storage tanks and refineries. Rising temperatures and droughts threaten our food and water supplies.
Indeed, as weather disasters become more common, mass evacuations and damaged infrastructure here at home will increase calls on our military to support strapped local responders. In 2017, as hurricanes wreaked havoc and destruction in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico, the U.S. had to slow the flow of forces to Afghanistan in order to help first responders at home. This stretching of our national security capacity undercuts the “total force” concept that relies on the active duty, National Guard and reserve units to play important roles to help the U.S. fight and win complex wars.
In 2017, President Trump signed a defense bill stating that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.” We can only meet these threats with comprehensive, immediate, bipartisan action that reasserts America’s climate leadership.
It’s time to directly integrate climate security into all our national security planning, including the “3 Ds” of diplomacy, development and defense. As we and other senior national security leaders argue in a forthcoming Climate Security Plan for America, it’s time to build on the growing list of ideas for fighting back. Climate change needs to become a regular feature of intelligence briefings, a portfolio for new senior Climate Change and Security positions across the government, and on the daily agenda for every agency that deals with security and foreign relations.
An interagency “Climate Security Crisis Watch Center” — staffed by experts in intelligence, national security, foreign affairs and climate — could help the government prepare and respond to climate changes that affect national security.
Imagine if the United States had really known Pearl Harbor was coming, or 9/11. There’s still time to mobilize as only America can, but not much time. Climate change is happening before our eyes. The only choice remaining is to pay now, or pay later.
Sherri Goodman is the former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security. Retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan is the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Both serve on the advisory board for the Center for Climate and Security. Follow on Twitter @CntrClimSec.