A challenge in policy decisions is that course changes are usually not felt with immediacy — they often fail to make an impact until years after decision and implementation. Climate change and its influence on national security is one of those circumstances with clear and present relevance, yet management decisions and long-term impact remain unclear in policy spheres.
Simply put, climate change is impacting national security. With issues including mobility and access in the Polar region, energy demands in military force staging and clean water as a source of regional turmoil, climatology as a foundational pillar in defense strategy is a long-term issue that now and future administrations cannot afford to ignore, or be wrong about.
The defense enterprise has a significant influence on the environment — the use of fossil fuels to power warships and aircraft, installations with massive power grid demands and man-made footprints in otherwise austere locales are top considerations. Notably, the proliferation of space apparatus and the subsequent “space debris” that comes with it has environmental effects that the Department of Defense has only just begun to codify.
In terms of environmental considerations, the Pentagon has already touted some efforts to reduce its footprint, namely upgrading existing infrastructure, and in cases of major rebuilds like Tyndall Air Force Base, relying on digital engineering to streamline construction. These are domestic fronts: The concept of defense tech aimed outward in a deterrent or offensive capability remains largely untapped.
Alternative fuels as a power source for defense technologies are certainly a worthy pursuit. Waste reduction overall during joint and coalition exercises, especially for the orbital space domain, are another vector where defense innovation can use increased funding. The use of digital engineering — computer modeling of development concepts that dramatically reduces materials used, timelines and construction — is an Air Force-led initiative that could portend far more efficient mechanisms of defense technology that reduce environmental impact.
Even simple solutions, like increasing biodegradable materials in a soldier's Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) would have a small, but compounding impact on the message that the U.S. is pivoting to remain lethal in a challenged environment. Complex vectors such as improved supply chain modeling and infrastructure reform are major steps that are already bipartisan efforts. But more remains to be done on these components, which have monumental environmental influence.
In the American flavor of democracy, regular turnover of leadership can be a constraint to long-term initiatives (to say nothing of partisan divides), whereas adversaries such as Moscow and Beijing enjoy executive longevity irrespective of the governed or legislative bodies. The White House, and subsequently, climatology priorities, change every four or eight years and are typically hamstrung by a feckless Congress in acting on this issue. This places the Biden administration and the 117th Congress at the helm of a compounding global challenge, as strategic competitors maintain destabilizing courses while adding to man-made climate change.
The Polar regions, in particular, are a critical ‘battleground’ in the strategic competition paradigm, although focus has waned in the past year. The recession of ice due to climate change means new avenues of trade routes and maritime endeavors, areas that China and Russia have been keen to exploit with only marginal deterrence. Collaborative diplomatic and defense postures that reduce contaminating presence in the polar regions is a policy vector that should remain firmly fixed as part of U.S. and international strategy.
Congress has strident facts on its side to make an impact — the reality of climate change altering our connected global system, and the rising might of an aggressive Chinese superpower that seeks global hegemony.
Typically, Congress can be counted on to align on major defense issues, despite strings often being attached to defense bills with heavy influence by constituent interests. The near-term defense budget doesn’t grow with current rates of inflation, but that budget is also preparing to unload $50 billion in annual Afghanistan expenses. Thus, reallocating appropriations is an opportunity for Congress to collaborate on funding that incentivizes defense and industry to find more efficient tech investments with an eye towards environmental risks. Defense tech that achieves performance capabilities while limiting environmental impact — technology that Chinese and Russian authoritarians can’t match, or appear to disregard — further legitimizes American leadership.
It’s no secret that the goal of Biden’s presidency is to regain America’s position as leader of a cooperative — not coerced — global alliance. China’s role as the biggest contributor to global pollution (52 gigatons of CO2-equivalent in 2019, surpassing all other developed nations combined) is a rational vector to achieve bipartisan cooperation and set long-term policy that puts U.S. defense architecture on a path to remain dominant while considering our fragile globe.
This bipartisan opportunity is a matter of strategic advantage and a chance for promoting American legitimacy and liberal models of leadership and governance. Other global industries have already begun transitioning to an environmentally conscious model and there is little reason for the defense enterprise to remain rooted in the last century. China’s authoritarian model has contributed to millions escaping extreme poverty, at the cost of human rights, while ignoring its impact on the environment. The Chinese Communist Party’s exploitation and forced labor of its people (not to mention consistent intellectual property theft) pose significant challenges to the free market innovative engine that the United States wields, especially on the globally important issue of climate change.
Vast economic capacity cannot come at the expense of the environment. This should be the rallying cry that serves to coalesce liberal democracies. This is where Washington and global allies can begin the process of stemming China’s march toward global hegemony. Beijing’s disdain for its environmental impact will echo across generations, and can serve as an impetus for Congress to focus on climate-efficient defense technology.
Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller; He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point), RealClearDefense, and The Hill. He can be found on twitter @LibertyStoic.