Three Reasons why The Pentagon Must Address Climate Change as a National Security Threat

December 5, 2019 | 9:38 am
(U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford)
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

This morning, Pentagon officials will testify during a Senate Armed Services Committee  hearing on “Strategic Threats, Ongoing Challenges, and National Defense Strategy Implementation.” On tap to testify are John Rood, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, and Lt. Gen. David Allvin, director for strategy, plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It has been reported that the hearing will likely focus on how the current Pentagon officials are Implementing the National Defense Strategy, a policy document that is a clear departure from previous administrations in many ways, not least in its omission of climate change as a national security threat (which I wrote about here).

While this omission happened under President Trump’s leadership, for decades, the military has “walked the talk” on climate change, specifically on how climate change exacerbates global instability and thus, by its nature, is a national security threat. A recent example is the annual 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community report which underscores the threat climate change poses to national security (more recent examples can be found here).

This is why it is so critical that the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee hear about any existing gaps the military has in addressing climate risks as well as the resources that would be needed to support our troops and the infrastructure our military relies upon as they cope with and manage the abrupt, cascading and compounding climate change impacts coming our way.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Scientists and the military agree: we are facing a growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate change

The latest IPCC Special Reports, the  Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC in 2018 and the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCCC) in 2019, find that tipping points could be exceeded between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming. The SROCCC authors end their grave report with a clear call to action:

“The more decisively and earlier we act, the more able we will be to address unavoidable changes, manage risks, improve our lives and achieve sustainability for ecosystems and people around the world – today and in the future.”

A recent article published in Nature builds on this work to explore the growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes, the effects of such changes, an assessment of how soon these changes could happen and what control we may still have to change the course. The authors underscore the fact that if nations successfully meet their current pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions it will likely result in a minimum of 3 degrees Celsius of global warming, which is beyond the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the 2015 Paris agreement. They argue that these findings require an emergency response and warming must be limited to 1.5 °C.

The call for urgent action is also echoed by many members of the military, including most recently the Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG) in “A Climate Security Plan for America.” The plan calls for four pillars of action including the need to:

  1. “Demonstrate Leadership: Make Climate Change a Vital National Security Priority.
  2.  Assess Climate Risks: Maintain Unprecedented Foresight About Climate Change.
  3.  Support Allies and Partners: Reinforce U.S. National Security and Compete on the World Stage by Bolstering Climate Resilience  Abroad.
  4.  Prepare for and Prevent Climate Impacts: Build U.S. Resilience to Climate Change Risks and Reduce Their Scale and Scope.”

    Airmen from the 821st Contingency Response Group setup tent city at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Oct. 12, 2018. The contingency response team deployed to assess damage and establish conditions for the re-initiation of airflow, bringing much needed equipment, supplies and personnel for the rebuilding of the base in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. AMC equipment and personnel stand by across the nation to provide even more support upon request (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Liliana Moreno)

2. Climate change poses real threats to our troops, right here at home

Of all the deadly threats to our active military, it may be surprising that extreme heat already poses significant challenges to active duty members of the military. In fact, most of the nearly 2,800 cases of heat-related illness among the US military last year happened right here at home.

Recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientist (UCS) “US Military on the Front Lines of Extreme Heat” found that if we fail to reduce global heat-trapping emissions, over the next 20 to 40 years, sizeable military bases in the contiguous United States would average an extra month of dangerously-hot days each year when the heat index—or “feels like” temperature—exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit. At many installations the increase would be even larger at two to three-and-a-half months.

When we stop to consider for a moment that every member of the Armed Services goes through basic training (and never forgets what that experience was like) it’s daunting to know that recruits are the most vulnerable to heat-related illness.  According to data from the Armed Forces Health Services, recruits experience these illnesses at a rate six times higher than other enlisted personal. Our analysis indicates that the number of lethally hot days at basic training facilities would quadruple, on average, by mid-century if carbon emissions aren’t drastically reduced.

3. Climate change threatens our military’s infrastructure

In January of this year and at the request of Congress, the Department of Defense issued an assessment of the climate impacts on military installations in a report on the “Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense.” While I wrote at length on the inadequacy of this report, it is reassuring to note that both the House (most recently here) and the Senate continue to provide important oversight on the resiliency of military installations to emerging threats, including climate change.

While there are many extreme weather and climate change related disasters that have and will continue to challenge the resilience of military installations, UCS provided a snapshot of 18 military installations exposure to sea level rise and storm surge in the 2016 report “The U.S. Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas.” Without extensive flood risk mitigation measures, we found that by the end of this century, most military installations can expect a large increase in the frequency of tidal flooding, storm surges that cover greater areas at increased depth, and loss of usable land area to the sea.

For Naval Air Station Key West, for instance, the findings were particularly stark. By the end of this century, under a high sea level rise scenario, the installation will be almost completely under water.

It was welcome news when the Department of Defense recognized the value of the analysis in a Navy Times article:

“DoD values the UCS’s insights into the impacts of climate change on military installations,” Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Badger told Navy Times. “We welcome their report and its findings. We recognize climate change impacts and their potential threats represent one more risk that we must consider as we make decisions about our installations, infrastructure, weapons systems and most of all, our people.”

Let this moment be a clear indication of future action on climate change

This week representatives from 200 countries are in Madrid attending the COP25 climate change conference where United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres provided opening remarks that spoke to the real challenges at hand:  “We are confronted now with a global climate crisis,” and “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon.”  Last week, Alden Meyer of UCS spoke even more urgently in his must read statement: “Latest UN Emissions Report Shows We Are Sleepwalking Towards Climate Catastrophe, Need to Wake Up and Act.”

Given the lack of leadership on climate change action under the Trump administration, this hearing (and subsequent hearings) ought to provide additional inroads into how Congress and the Pentagon can work together to address these existential threats. The good news is that Congress has made strides on climate change mitigation and adaptation policies in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 and 2019 National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA). Congress has the opportunity again this year to make even greater progress in the FY 2020 NDAA. To be sure Congress develops policies that go far enough, during today’s hearing we need John Rood and Lt. Gen. David Allvin to candidly advocate for the resources and policies that will help keep our troops, their families, surrounding communities and infrastructure prepared in the face of climate change.