A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

No Climate Denial at the Pentagon


Unlike President Trump, the Pentagon regards climate change as a threat to national security and is undertaking substantial efforts to prepare for the fallout.

© US Army/Sgt. Ryan Jenkins/Handout via REUTERS

In its most recent assessment of climate change impacts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) devoted a total 1,131 pages to warming’s effects on various ecosystems and human habitats, such as coastal systems, freshwater resources, and urban areas. But only 38 pages were specifically devoted to “human security,” and, within that section, only five pages were devoted to armed conflict and four to human migrations—arguably the most meaningful consequence of climate change for humans. The impression given is that human and international security are secondary when compared to ecological and resource concerns. In the documents on climate change issued by the US Department of Defense, however, the ranking of priorities is exactly reversed: the societal and security consequences of warming rank highest, while ecological considerations receive far less attention.

Both the Department of Defense and the IPCC view climate change as a significant peril, encompassing a wide range of phenomena—rising seas, more frequent and intense storms, prolonged droughts and heatwaves, recurring wildfires—considered threatening to natural and man-made habitats. Yet the Pentagon highlights the perils to human societies. “Climate change,” it told Congress in 2015, is “contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” And while the earliest victims of these pressures are likely to be “fragile and conflict-affected states” in the developing world, ultimately “even resilient, well-developed countries are subject to the effects of climate change in significant and consequential ways.”

The impression one obtains in Washington today, however, is that all federal agencies, including the Pentagon, are expected to refrain from discussing climate change. Soon after assuming office in 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded Executive Order 13653, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” a measure signed by President Barack Obama in November 2013. That directive had enjoined every government agency to identify its vulnerabilities to global warming and to undertake whatever steps were deemed necessary to overcome any perils so identified; it also called on all federal agencies to help reduce the severity of global warming by reducing their own carbon emissions. In accordance with Obama’s order, the Department of Defense had undertaken substantial efforts to reduce its exposure to warming’s effects and reduce its emissions. All this, however, was supposed to come to a halt after Trump rescinded the Obama measure and commenced a campaign to expunge “climate change” from the formal government lexicon. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has largely persisted with its drive to prepare for climate change, even if it has generally refrained from employing that term in public.

A “Threat Multiplier”

Most senior officers have come to view climate change as gathering momentum and posing a significant threat to American national security. Many of them have served extended tours of duty in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and so have witnessed first-hand the harsh impacts of warming on vulnerable populations in resource-deprived areas. They have also been called upon—in some cases repeatedly—to provide humanitarian assistance to storm-ravaged areas both at home and abroad. And they know that their own bases, in the United States and elsewhere, are highly vulnerable to severe flooding, rising sea levels, recurring wildfires, and other consequences of climate change.

When not directly engaged in combat, American military officers, like those elsewhere, devote much of their time preparing for the next war or wars. This means, of course, extensive training and weapons procurement, along with systematic examination of the arms and tactics of likely adversaries. But it also entails assessing the terrain and environmental conditions in the areas where American forces may be obliged to fight. This has meant intensive study of potential battlefields in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—and increasingly in the Arctic region. This, in turn, has led to research on changing climatic conditions in those areas and how these changes are affecting the stability and political composition of local societies.

This process began in 2006, when the CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank once known as the Center for Naval Analyses, convened an advisory board of retired officers and tasked it with assessing the impact of climate change on American national security. A year later, the group released a summary of its findings, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, which was widely circulated in Pentagon circles and had a huge impact on US military thinking. For the first time, climate change was identified as a significant threat to American national security.

One of the reasons it proved so influential was its new concept of “threat multiplier.” Even when not a direct cause of conflict and chaos, climate change could prove the one decisive factor that pushes fragile societies to the brink of internal conflict and state collapse. This notion has remained the cornerstone of US military thinking on climate change ever since. More than anything, it identifies societal cohesion and government competence as key factors in determining the cumulative impact of climate change on exposed populations: the more fragmented and corruption-ridden a polity, the greater the likelihood it will succumb to warming’s harsh consequences, producing internecine warfare, humanitarian disaster, and mass migrations. The resulting chaos will, in turn, result in multiple challenges for the US military, whether in the form of frequent humanitarian aid missions or military interventions or both.

Climate Change and the Syrian War

By 2010, this concept had acquired widespread acceptance within the senior military leadership and was incorporated into that year’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report (QDR). “Assessments by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments,” it stated.

The QDR identified geopolitical impacts, mass migrations, and state collapse as among the principal outcomes of climate change—topics that receive relatively scant attention in the various IPCC reports. Admittedly, the Pentagon views the climate problem through the lens of national security and so will tend to emphasize factors that bear on those concerns. At the same time, US military officers are vitally concerned about the real-world consequences of climate change, especially those that are likely to result in large-scale human death, displacement, and suffering.

By the middle of the decade, as the war in Syria gained momentum and spurred massive waves of migration to Europe, many in the US military and intelligence community saw climate change as a major precipitating factor. A prolonged drought in 2007-2010 decimated Syrian agriculture and drove many thousands of impoverished farmers into crowded cities, where they received scant assistance from the Assad regime—and, it is thought, helped fuel the anti-government protests that erupted in 2011.

More recently, officials at the US Africa Command (Africom), have identified persistent drought in the Sahel region of North Africa as a source of intensified tribal and terrorist violence there. “Changing weather patterns, rising temperatures, and dramatic shifts in rainfall contribute to drought, famine, migration, and resource competition [in the Sahel],” General Thomas D. Waldhauser, Africom’s commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2019.

US Bases at Risk

American officers see that there is a limit to how many humanitarian and stability operations they can undertake at any one time, while also preparing for high-intensity conflict with “great-power competitors,” such as China and Russia. Climate change is seen as a significant impediment to military preparedness by diverting the services from their primary tasks. What’s worse, warming’s effects are expected to intensify in the years ahead, pushing more and more states to the point of collapse. And, just as worrisome, climate change threatens to endanger the future viability of many of the Department of Defense’s key stateside bases, diminishing its capacity to undertake major operations abroad.

In response, the Pentagon has adopted a proactive stance, seeking both to minimize the future impacts of climate change on its combat preparedness and to reduce its own contributions to climate change. To assess the vulnerability of its bases, the department initiated an audit of the climate vulnerability of its major coastal bases. It revealed that many of those bases were at risk of inundation from sea-level rise, storm surge, and severe flooding. Subsequent reports, covering all US bases and all climate-related perils (including wildfires, high winds, and prolonged drought), have generated considerable controversy as the Trump administration has sought to delete references to “climate change” and members of Congress have demanded access to unexpurgated versions of the documents (which have since been made public).

Despite the administration’s efforts to stifle discussion of climate change, senior military officials continue to worry about the vulnerability of their major bases to extreme climate effects. Recent events have amplified these concerns. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence inflicted over $3 billion in damage to one base alone—Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina—and additional damage to other bases in North and South Carolina. A month later, Hurricane Michael ripped through the Florida Panhandle, destroying much of Tyndall Air Force Base and incapacitating seventeen F-22 Raptor stealth fighter planes, worth $334 million each. And in March 2019, severe inland flooding devastated Offutt Air Force Base—headquarters of the Strategic Air Command.

Work with Allies and Partners

Meanwhile, in a bid to improve its energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, in 2011, the Pentagon released the first of a series called Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans, mandating significant improvements in energy efficiency, renewables use, and emissions reduction. It decreed that 20 percent of all energy consumed at Department of Defense bases and installations had to come from renewable sources by 2020. Data released in 2016 showed that the services were making significant headway toward achieving these goals, but it has been difficult to track their progress since then.

The department has also expressed its commitment to promoting climate adaptation by the military forces of allied and friendly nations. From early on, the Pentagon leadership concluded that it would not be possible to prevent the widespread disintegration of fragile societies abroad unless those states were better prepared to cope with the shocks and pressures of climate change. Accordingly, the Department of Defense enjoined its overseas commands, such as Africom, to collaborate with the forces of local nations in developing emergency response networks and improved food, water, and health systems.

By 2015, such engagement efforts were well under way. According to the Pentagon’s report to Congress that year, Africom was working closely with partner nations “to enhance planning, responses, and resilience to the effects of climate change.” Among other activities, Africom was helping to conduct continent-wide training workshops on pandemic and natural disaster preparedness, usually in conjunction with local armed forces and civilian health agencies. The Pacific Command (Pacom), for its part, was working with local partners on enhanced disaster response capabilities and on efforts to promote “sustainable resource management and critical resource security.”

The 2014 edition of the QDR stated that climate change, “creates both a need and an opportunity for nations to work together, which the Department will seize through a range of initiatives.” This is a rather remarkable statement for an organization not known for its political outspokenness, and testifies to the extent of its concern over the globally destabilizing consequences of climate change.

For now, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is unlikely that senior military officials will speak so openly about their concerns over the national security implications of climate change. Nevertheless, it is evident that they have undertaken numerous initiatives—many still under way—to address its severe effects. In so doing, they have also developed a unique analysis of climate change and how it should be addressed. This approach, which places the vulnerability of human societies and institutions foremost and makes their protection the highest climate-related priority, deserves close attention by the rest of humanity, both at home and abroad.