Climate Change: A National Security Imperative

June 6, 2022 By Sean Sorbie

Rising seas, the destruction of ecosystems, and unpredictable and severe weather: the immediate impacts of climate change phenomena such as these challenge America’s national security both in the near and long term. A whole-of-society approach coupled with robust American leadership on the global stage will be needed to address this challenge and shield Americans from the devastating effects of the climate crisis. Smart investments in development and diplomacy programs complement our nation’s military to both protect American national security and address the impacts of climate change.

Here at home, military leaders have recognized and cautioned against the security challenges presented by climate change, specifically when looking at military bases. In 2021, the Department of Defense released a Climate Action Plan showing that dozens of military bases are at risk from climate change. For example, MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, the headquarters for operations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, as well as the command center for Special Operations worldwide, is a prime example of the kind of climate threats military bases are facing. The base sits at the tip of a peninsula that juts out into Tampa Bay and is already seeing increasingly frequent and severe flooding and erosion. Each year, the base sees more and more days with heat indices over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making daily operations difficult and dangerous for the local troops. This, along with sewage runoff into Tampa Bay, leads to increased and prolonged algae blooms such as red tide, disrupting training operations, adversely affecting force readiness. Every canceled or disrupted training operation negatively affects the ability of our nation’s military forces to fight and meet the demands of national security. The climate change impact on military infrastructure also impacts national security.

Military bases along the coast are not the only American population impacted by climate change. In fact, around 30% of the population in the United States lives in coastal communities. Over time, rising sea levels and other coastal impacts of climate change, like those seen at MacDill, contribute to large-scale displacement. Globally, in 2020 nearly 31 million people were uprooted as a result of climate related disasters, forcing them to migrate to more protected communities. Climate migration is often heard of in low-income nations, but climate migration is an issue likely to cause significant policy and national security issues in the United States soon. It is estimated that by 2070, over 4 million Americans will be living in conditions ill-suited to sustaining human life. Rampant forest fires, high powered hurricanes, violent flooding, an expanding tornado season, and drought, like rising sea levels, can lead to famine, disease, and displacement, creating a domestic refugee crisis and further instability. For example, each year since 2016, forest fires have displaced 1.2 million people annually in the United States, and some never return home again. Climate change is making the fallout from disasters like forest fires worse, causing even more migration and displacement bordering on crisis in the coming years.

Around the world, climate change increases stress on critical resources underpinning global security, including water, food, and energy. These additional stresses can break down a nation’s capacity to govern. Shortages of critical resources devastate livelihoods and contribute to a broad range of destabilizing trends including internal population displacements, migration, and political unrest. In 2019, over 40 million people in 17 countries experienced conflict due to weather displacement, food shortages, and economic shocks. The new U.S. Army Climate Strategy notes “an increased risk of armed conflict in places where established social orders and populations are disrupted. The risk will rise even more where climate effects compound social instability, reduce access to necessities, undermine fragile governments and economies, damage vital infrastructure, and lower agricultural production.” These pressures in turn can contribute to state fragility, internal conflict, and potentially state collapse. Climate change can also indirectly alter or disrupt existing international security dynamics in geostrategic environments, such as the Arctic and the South China Sea.

As noted in the 2021 Climate Action Plan released by the Department of Defense, the military is looking ahead and considering how to integrate climate change threats into its larger national security plan. As stated in the Plan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said, “going forward, the Department will include the security implications of climate change in our risk analysis, strategy development, and planning.”

Clearly, the military cannot solve this problem alone; this is a global problem that requires global solutions. Smart investments in diplomacy and development programing are crucial for the United States to work multilaterally on the world stage. The Department of State has emphasized America’s role in these crises well: “All countries – especially the world’s major economies – must contribute their fair share to the global climate effort. The United States is prepared to work with other countries to help them chart their own pathways to prosperity built on the clean technologies of the future.” While the domestic impacts of climate change are just now being integrated into our larger national security agenda, the United States will need to be prepared to tackle this global problem with global solutions.