Combatting climate change will make us more secure
President Biden’s recent Leaders Summit on Climate highlighted the clear and compelling link between climate instability and our national security. The White House made a key theme of the summit the need to “address the global security challenges posed by climate change and the impact on readiness.” For the United States, climate impacts on our military operations, service members, economy and global stability will erode our standing on the world stage and our ability to project U.S. power.
Fourteen years ago, during the George W. Bush administration, the CNA Military Advisory Board, in collaboration with scientists and analysts at CNA, released our first report on the national security threats from climate change.
Representing our nation’s most senior military leaders, the board concluded that “climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” We also determined that less demand for fossil fuels like diesel and jet fuel would make our combat forces more effective and less vulnerable in the battlespace. Too few U.S. leaders heeded those warnings and recommendations in the intervening years. Now that seems to be changing.
Through the Obama and Trump administrations, we have continued to raise the flag about the national security imperative of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Our dependence upon fossil energy threatens military operations, puts our diplomatic power at risk and accelerates the national security impacts of a changing climate. It even opens the door for adversaries to make economic gains at our expense in the emerging global market for advanced energy.
After 14 years of sounding the alarm, the idea that U.S. national security benefits from reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is not new. What is new in 2021 is the Biden-Harris administration’s recognition of this national security imperative. The dual challenges of climate and energy are intertwined into the Interim National Security Strategy Guidance released in March.
In a bold move, the guidance adopts an expansive understanding of the drivers of national security. These include helping African nations combat threats from both climate change and violent extremism, investing in climate-conscious food and water security, and defense funding for clean energy. Central to this new national security agenda is the reassertion of international leadership by the United States. Cooperation with China will be as critical for climate change as it is for global health security, arms control and nuclear nonproliferation.
The twin emerging national security threats arising from climate and energy already have profound impacts on the U.S. military. Our expeditionary forces face increased demands to respond to regional conflicts in climate- and energy-stressed countries like Iraq and Syria, which have also brought on the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
At home, our National Guard and other military resources have been increasingly called upon to respond to emergencies that scientists say could be made more common and severe by climate change. These include extreme wildfires in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, and the catastrophic failure of energy supply during the February storm in Texas. Climate-related crises that repeatedly demand the attention of U.S. forces put our national power at risk.
The U.S. military is not a passive beneficiary of President Biden’s bold agenda. It has a significant role to play. For the last two decades, the Pentagon and the services have demonstrated their potential to move the needle on the energy transition and climate action by revamping infrastructure and operations, and by investing in the research, development and deployment of new, emission-free technologies. The Department of Defense is training a future workforce knowledgeable in alternative energy. It also supports diplomatic efforts to reduce conflicts globally through more forward-looking climate and energy strategies.
Ceding U.S. leadership in the worldwide transition to advanced energy would have grave national security consequences. It would diminish our global influence and diplomatic leverage, cause us to miss opportunities for economic revitalization, and increase risk to our troops. Implementing the Biden-Harris national security agenda is the best opportunity in decades for the U.S. to address the twin threats of climate and energy insecurity and restore confidence in our leadership at home and abroad.
Lee Gunn is a retired Navy vice admiral and vice-chair of the CNA Military Advisory Board.
Cheryl B. Rosenblum is the executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board.
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