Military leaders warn of climate security threats

By Erika Bolstad | 09/14/2016 09:06 AM EDT

A bipartisan group of defense experts and former military leaders are calling on the next administration to consider climate change as a grave threat to national security.

A bipartisan group of defense experts and former military leaders are calling on the next administration to consider climate change as a grave threat to national security.

It’s not just about protecting military bases from sea-level rise, they argue in a climate consensus statement issued this morning in advance of today’s Climate and National Security Forum.

The effects of climate change present a risk to U.S. national security and international security, and the United States should advance a comprehensive policy for addressing the risk, its authors say.


The Pentagon must game out catastrophic climate scenarios, track trends in climate impacts and collaborate with civilian communities, they say. Stresses from climate change can increase the likelihood of international or civil conflict, state failure, mass migration and instability in strategically significant areas around the world.

Climate change presents a significant and direct risk to U.S. military readiness, operations and strategy — and military leaders say it should transcend politics.

"I hope that both policymakers and those in the public who care about this issue will see that this is really not a partisan issue; this is really an apolitical issue, it’s an issue of security," said retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, now the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University.

Yet the issue remains political, as President Obama seeks to define his efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as one of his signature achievements. Those politics emerged this summer after House Republicans passed defense appropriations and authorization bills that bar the Defense Department from spending money on efforts to combat climate change, including green fuel projects.

The House move came in response to an executive directive issued in January within the Department of Defense requiring Pentagon agencies to take climate change into account and to consider its effects when developing plans and implementing procedures.

Titley said that many military leaders see it as a fact that climate change is "going to impact just about everything, including security."

It’s "actually not a politics question," he said. "It’s just the physics. The ice doesn’t care what you vote or what you believe in. The ice is going to just keep melting."

Much has changed since the Center for Climate and Security first issued a report 10 years ago, said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of Defense who is widely credited with coining the phrase "threat multiplier" to describe the risk climate change poses to national security.

Military leaders now understand that rapidly changing physical, environmental, economic, social and political conditions result in hard-to-predict security risks. But they also understand that they have a role in mitigating the causes of climate change, she said.

Many military leaders say that considering climate change and renewable energy has made their branches more resilient fighting forces and bureaucracies, starting with reducing emissions and creating a nimble fighting culture that is less dependent on fossil fuels. By reducing their carbon footprint, they become a combatant in the war on rising global temperatures, military leaders say.

"The Pentagon and military have seized upon the opportunities to diversify energy sources, to reduce demand, to reduce costs," Goodman said. "It’s about reducing costs and improving operational readiness. And when you diversify and become more efficient with your energy and your fuel sources, you get multiple benefits, both in performance and in cost."

Addressing climate change "is an important, fundamental national security matter," Goodman said.

"It’s widely considered as such by military leaders and across the board," she said, "and by bipartisan national security leaders, think tanks and a wide range of national security folks who’ve served in multiple administrations, under many different secretaries of Defense and under both parties."

They know that it will be challenging to break through the noise of the election cycle, she said, but the briefing book will be ready for the next administration to use.

"Now is the time to act," Goodman said. "The planet is changing, the world is changing, and America must continue to lead in this area."