Idea #11

Listen to National Security Professionals on Climate Change’s Risks

by Mark P. Nevitt

Climate change is having a moment.  Following a devastating wildfire and hurricane season, it is increasingly clear that climate change is not just an environmental issue — it also creates enormous national security risks.  As Professor Richard Lazarus of Harvard has pointed out, climate change is properly conceptualized as a “super-wicked” problem affecting numerous disciplines, including national security.  Today, national security professionals — which includes military officers and the intelligence community — are sounding the alarm about climate change’s multifaceted national security risks.   Despite recent partisan attacks on climate science and the current Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the national security community has largely held steady, addressing the climate risks facing the nation and the world in a blunt, sobering manner.  We should listen.

So what are the national security risks posed by climate change?

Domestically, climate change acts as a “threat accelerant,” increasing the intensity and severity of extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes, and storm surge.  It worsens sea level rise and nuisance flooding.  In turn, climate change stresses emergency response assets and harms valuable national security infrastructure.  Witness the most recent hurricane season that ravaged military installations on the Florida and North Carolina coasts.  Internationally, climate change acts as a “catalyst for conflict.”  Indeed, nations increasingly struggle with droughts, food and water insecurity, and extreme weather — all exacerbated by climate change.

We must listen carefully to national security professionals on these climate risks. Besides being the right thing to do, there are several pragmatic reasons why we need to listen closely.

First, national security professionals and the intelligence community bring a balanced, non-partisan, and highly respected voice to the climate change discussion.  Indeed, national security leaders approach climate risk through a pragmatic culture rooted in operational risk assessment and planning.  As climate change is replete with “known unknowns,” a thoughtful, planning-based approach is essential.

Relatedly, while climate science has been the subject of recent partisan attacks, the intelligence community’s message on climate change has stayed steady, irrespective of the Oval Office occupant.   As Professor Sarah Light of Wharton has already astutely argued, connecting climate change to national security risks has the potential to change individual attitudes and beliefs concerning climate change.  And this message is simply not going away.  For example, the most recent threat assessment from the Office of Director of National Intelligence, released just a few months ago,  addressed the national security implications of climate change in clear-eyed terms:

[G]lobal environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.

Second, concerns over the national security implications of climate change are beginning to translate into legislative action.   While the EPA is actively dismantling environmental and climate regulations, climate security remains “sticky.”   Indeed, forward-looking climate security provisions have made their way into the past two defense appropriations.  More are in the works.  For example, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited military construction in the 100-year floodplain — an important climate adaptation measure that did not receive the attention it deserved.   The 2019 defense spending bill required the Department of Defense to provide a report ranking the military installations most vulnerable to climate change.  While this report ultimately fell short in detail and substance that many of us hoped for, it nevertheless kept climate change in the news and on the congressional radar.  Since the Democrats took over the House in January,  Congress has already held several hearings addressing climate change.   And just last week, the House passed an initial defense spending bill that requires the military to develop a climate vulnerability and risk assessment tool.

Finally, the military is an enormous emitter of Greenhouse Gas emissions and is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum.  A recent study released last month from Brown University’s Cost of War project estimated that the Department of Defense emits more GHG emissions than many European nations.  Indeed, if the military was ranked against all the nations of the world, it would rank as the #55th largest emitter of GHG emissions.  So any future plans to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce GHG emissions must take into account emissions from the military and national security sector.  The national security sector must be included in the broader climate mitigation discussion.  It cannot be wished away.

In sum, what the future holds for the “big ticket” items on any future climate agenda — such as the future of the Paris Climate Accord and the future of domestic climate legislation — remains to be seen.  In the interim, we should listen carefully to our national security professionals.  Even better, we should continue to act on their advice as we prepare for the coming climate century.

Mark Nevitt is currently the Sharswood Fellow, Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  Prior to his appointment at Penn he served as a Commander in the U.S. Navy.