Pentagon chief: Climate crisis ‘existential’ threat to US national security

Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday called climate change an “existential” threat to U.S. national security, committing the Pentagon to “doing our part” to alleviate it.

“Today, no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis. We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential. The climate crisis does,” Austin said during an international climate summit hosted by the White House.

“The climate crisis is a profoundly destabilizing force for our world. As the Arctic melts, competition for resources and influence in the region increases. Closer to the equator, rising temperatures and frequent and intense extreme weather events in Africa and Central America threaten millions with drought, hunger, and displacement,” he added.

President Biden began the virtual summit with a pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by the year 2030, more than double the Obama administration’s commitment under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. 

Notably, the summit took place on the fifth anniversary of the signing of the agreement, which former President Trump pulled the United States from in 2019 and Biden reentered in January. 

Biden also announced a new international climate finance plan meant to eventually double U.S. financing for climate-related programs in developing countries and put limits on international investment in fossil fuels. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who also spoke at the event, said he welcomed Biden’s leadership on tackling climate change, which he asserted is “making the world more dangerous.”

“It has a serious impact on our security, so it matters for NATO,” Stoltenberg said.

The Defense Department in just the past few years has seen its own fair share of climate change impacts on military installations – including heavy downpours, drought, rising temperature and sea level and repeated forest fires – which Austin listed off in his speech.

Among them was 2018’s Hurricane Michael, which “inflicted billions of dollars of damage at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida,” he said.

Severe flooding of the Missouri River in 2019, meanwhile, damaged Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., costing hundreds of millions of dollars to repair.

“The wildfires in California have threatened other military installations, forcing repeated evacuations. Typhoons in Guam most commonly occurred from June to December, but in February of 2019, Typhoon Wutip forced us to pause exercises with our Australian and Japanese allies,” Austin added.

The United States’s 18 intelligence agencies have since been tasked with creating a report aimed at the security implications of climate change, he noted. 

Biden early in his presidency ushered in new policies to establish “climate considerations as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security,” bucking Trump’s repeated assertions that climate change was a “hoax.”

As part of that, the Pentagon in January announced that it will now consider climate change when planning war games and will incorporate the issue into its future National Defense Strategy. 

The Defense Department in March also announced the creation of a working group to respond to Biden’s executive orders aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

Moves to tackle climate change can also be seen in Biden’s recently released $753 billion defense budget for next fiscal year, which said it would support “efforts to plan for and mitigate impacts of climate change” on Defense Department facilities and invest in “power and energy research and development.” 

Tags Climate change Donald Trump Joe Biden Lloyd Austin
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