Climate Change Takes Center Stage Again at the Pentagon

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Speaking to American troops at RAF Mildenhall, England, on his trip to Europe, President Biden recounted an exchange with the Joint Chiefs as vice president: “This is not a joke.  You know what the Joint Chiefs told us the greatest threat facing America was?  Global warming.”  Those comments were the latest in a Pentagon policy redux to return climate change to Obama-era status that it is an “urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

This began only days after inauguration, when President Biden signed several executive orders again elevating climate change to a national priority.  The Pentagon soon followed suit, stating that it would begin incorporating climate risk analysis into modeling, simulation, war-gaming, analysis, and the next National Defense Strategy.  “There is little about what the [Defense] Department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change,” defense secretary Lloyd Austin declared.  “It is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such.”

This shift reverses Trump administration policy that removed climate change from the list of global threats to the U.S.  Implications are that Biden administration security policy will give climate change status on par with more traditional and conventional threats like great power competition, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, while declaring that the danger it poses overshadows more pressing threats.

But do world events — present or past — support claims of climate change influencing the global security environment?   Does the still uncertain and questionable science of climate change meet the threshold to influence, even justify, Pentagon decision-making involving investments, acquisitions, policy, and infrastructure potentially costing billions of dollars?

Existing national security threats — e.g., great power competition, cyber-attacks, piracy, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, financial crises, dictatorships, nationalism, drug-trafficking, revolutions, Iran, North Korea, etc. — will all continue to fester.  Yet none can be persuasively linked to climate change, even as a worsening effect.  Further, climate change does not appear to animate the agendas of U.S. antagonists like Putin, Xi, Al-Shabaab, the Taliban, Kim, Rouhani (now Raisi), Assad, al-Qaeda, cartels, Hezb’allah, Hamas, or Boko Haram.

ISIL, which once controlled large swaths of some of the planet’s most inhospitable desert areas in Syria and Iraq, professed no regard for “climate change” in its worldview.  The current century’s wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — have no compelling environmental or climatological links, nor have any U.S. military interventions in our post-1945 era.  Arguably, no war in human history, modern or otherwise, has a causal relationship with climate change, despite human history recording periods of the planet both warming and cooling.

The science behind climate change is also not settled, and any evidence of cause and effect on national security is even less certain.  Only a few years ago, well known columnist George Will reminded us with his aptly titled commentary, “Apocalypse Fatigue,” that it was only the mid-1970s when “a major cooling of the climate was widely considered inevitable.”  Climatologists told us to “prepare for the next ice age.”  Scientists were “almost unanimous” that cooling would “reduce agricultural productivity,” and “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” would “stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery.”  Were that era’s White House and Pentagon remiss to ignore such forecasts in their decision-making by not “following the science” of their day?

Other studies conclude that environmental factors rarely incite conflict within or between nations.  In fact, the opposite — international cooperation — may more likely occur.  By comparison, one Pentagon assessment cited nations like Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad, Somalia, and Sudan as areas with extreme environmental risks (defined as nations that struggle to offer a sustainable environmental setting that provides for basic human needs).  Conversely, nearby regions like Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Arabian Gulf, the Caribbean, North Africa, the Indian Ocean, etc. — with similar environmental and climatological challenges — have development, infrastructure, workable environments, and relatively stable political and economic conditions for their societies.

Consider that Qatar will host soccer’s 2022 World Cup.  There, temperatures routinely exceed 120 degrees in mid-summer desert surroundings, yet modern technology, development, and a relatively stable political situation allow adaptation to live (and play fútbol) in otherwise inhospitable conditions.  Climate change is not the variable determining whether conflict occurs in environmentally challenged areas.

For the future, climate change will likely not determine whether there will be conflict.  For example, if the Arctic continues warming and that environment becomes less harsh, the region will open to more energy and mineral exploitation, fishing, and maritime traffic.  Nations will vie for these resources, but how they choose to compete — not climatic change — will determine whether conflict occurs.

Our military forces must also be prepared to operate in whatever weather extremes they encounter, regardless of long-term climatic changes.  If U.S. forces had been required to operate in Russia in 2012 along similar routes as the Wehrmacht in 1941 and Napoleon in 1812, they would have encountered worse cold and weather than in either of those campaigns so infamously ravaged by winter.  In fact, Russia endured its harshest winter in over 70 years and had not experienced such a long cold spell since 1938, with temperatures 10–15 degrees below seasonal norms nationwide.  Like Russia, China’s 2012 winter temperatures were the lowest in almost three decades and were cold enough to freeze coastal waters and trap hundreds of ships in ice.

It is difficult to envision a scenario where any of the foremost national security threats would be appreciably diminished or mitigated by “reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” migrating to alternative energy sources, or “reducing carbon pollution” as prescribed in that section of the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy, “Confront Climate Change.”

It is also hard to imagine the U.S. undertaking military operations expressly due to climate change outside possible “humanitarian assistance and disaster relief” (HADR) responding to significant — but episodic and typical — natural (e.g., earthquake, volcano, fires) or weather (e.g., hurricane, blizzard, tornado) events.  Providing HADR has long been a staple of U.S. military interventions in modern times and is already a core DoD capability.

What the previous administration’s national security strategy underscored instead were pragmatic realities of a “competitive world” where “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”  The Pentagon’s accompanying defense strategy elaborated on what the nation faced: increased global disorder, “characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order — creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any … experienced in recent memory.”

A Pentagon facing epic global challenges cannot lose focus on core national security priorities or its profound grasp of the origins, causes, and motives for human conflict.  Military leaders cannot be distracted from true national security threats — i.e., antagonists and competitors willfully and purposefully directing adversarial — often military — actions against this nation with malicious intent.  For the foreseeable future, “the central challenge to U.S. [and global] prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term strategic competition,” primarily from China and Russia.

With such clarity — absent the narrative, politics, uncertainty, and rhetoric of climate change — the Pentagon can then best direct its substantial enterprise toward those more numerous, serious, and pressing threats facing this nation in our troubled world.

During his Air Force career, Colonel Krisinger served in policy advisory positions at the Pentagon and twice at the Department of State.  He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the Naval War College and also was also a National Defense Fellow at Harvard University.  As a military aviator, he piloted the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

Image via the Department of Defense.

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