Early this morning, Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane, making it stronger than Hurricane Katrina (indeed the strongest to hit Louisiana since 1856), and setting a new record for hurricanes making U.S. landfalls by the end of August. In addition to billions of dollars in damage, the storm forced the evacuation of the nation’s B-52 bomber fleet, caused a chemical plant explosion, and resulted in the mobilization of both the Louisiana and Texas National Guards.
Meanwhile, more than 650 wildfires, many sparked by lightning, have burned more than 1.25 million acres in California – just in the last 10 days. These fires caused the evacuation of Travis Air Force Base, the activation of fire-fighting aircraft from numerous Air National Guards, and the displacement of more than 120,000 people from their homes. The fire season in California is 50 days longer than it was in 1979, and 40 percent more area is burned today than would if conditions remained stable since the 1980s.
Not to mention 183,000 people have died in the United States alone from the coronavirus, a harbinger of a “new pandemic era,” that is made worse by changing climates and the destruction of ecosystems.
And this isn’t just an American problem. Earlier this year, the entire continent of Australia was on fire. The Syrian civil war was exacerbated by (if not instigated by) a punishing draught in 2011, Somalia and Kenya are engaged in continuing conflicts over natural resources made scarce by rising temperatures, rising seas are creating a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, and melting sea ice has opened new shipping lanes and heightening tensions between world powers.
Quite simply, climate change is a national security threat.
For decades, climate change has been understood to be a “threat multiplier.” Generally, climate change is seen as a threat in two primary areas. First, climate change affects conflicts between nations and among ethnic groups within nations. And second, climate change affects U.S. military infrastructure and operations. Combined, the ongoing effects of climate change pose a significant threat to American national security.
And this threat is already here. This is not an abstract or conceptual threat that might one day pose a challenge to the United States. We are not discussing a catastrophic sea level rise of 20 feet that has been overstated by some advocates. The effects of extreme weather events, like the ones occurring right now, pose an immediate security threat to the United States. But don’t take my word for it.
The May 2010 National Security Strategy repeatedly groups together violent extremism, nuclear weapons, climate change, pandemic disease, and economic instability as security threats. The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment by the U.S. Intelligence Community, an annual report on security threats to U.S. interests, concludes that “global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.” Further, “climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea-level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.” A 2015 Department of Defense report “recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to US interests globally.”
Even President Trump’s previous Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that climate change was a “driver of instability” that “requires a broader, whole-of-government response.” President Obama’s last Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, echoed these same concerns by arguing that climate change was a top strategic challenge – on par with terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear program. Let that sink in. Military and national security experts argue that climate change is as important as terrorism and North Korea.
Let me be clear. Climate change likely does not pose an existential threat to a country as large as the United States. I’m not sure that anyone is making that argument. However, as Hurricane Katrina and the coronavirus pandemic have illustrated, extreme events could kill and endanger large numbers of people, cause civil disorder, and damage critical infrastructure anywhere in the country. These types of events highlight capability gaps in our responses and national institutions that have the potential to cause harm to millions of Americans. They are “accelerants of instability” – both at home, and around the world.
What Can We Do?
Despite decades of warning, very little has been done to address this looming threat. The EPA has continued to roll back climate protections, while policymakers delay a transition to a renewable energy economy. President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, while Republicans in Congress throw snowballs to refute the presence of climate change. We are refusing to do what is necessary to stop a threat that the military has already shown to be inevitable. Meanwhile, America’s infrastructure, food production, transportation network, and American lives remain at risk.
First and foremost, the United States needs to stop sidelining scientists and national security experts, who have been warning of the devastating effects of climate change for decades. Second, the U.S. needs to end its reliance on fossil fuels. Not just foreign fossil fuels, but all fossil fuels. Finally, the U.S. should prioritize so called “no-regrets policies,” those that the U.S. would not regret having pursued even if the consequences of climate change prove less severe than feared. This might include investments in evacuation and relocation strategies that can save hundreds of lives in the face of terrorist attacks or other natural disasters (such as non-climate related earthquakes). Similarly, water conservation efforts would prove beneficial for agriculture and human consumption patterns – regardless of the severity of climate change.
However, in order achieve these kinds of meaningful policy actions, climate change must be addressed as a national security threat, instead of the environmental issue commonly argued. Regardless of any perceived scientific uncertainty, when have we ever had 100 percent certainty about any national security threat? In fact, Republican Dick Cheney outlined the One Percent Doctrine for the Bush Administration’s approach for dealing with national security threats. His argument was that if there was even a 1 percent chance of WMD in Iraq, “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” As hindsight tells us, that 1 percent chance was incorrect, but it didn’t stop the U.S. from spending trillions of dollars engaging in a decade of war that created a power vacuum, that has since spilled into neighboring nations. If 1 percent certainty was high enough to act in Iraq, why isn’t the 97 percent certainty cited by most scientists worthy of action on climate change?
I’d like to conclude with a caveat. Although framing climate change as a national security threat is an appropriate course of action, I would caution against assuming that only the military can be called in response. International agreements, interdisciplinary solutions, and a whole-of-government response are necessary to curb the threat of climate change. Much like the coronavirus pandemic, the military is ill-suited to deter the threat of climate change.
Air Force veteran, writing about the intersection of domestic policy and national security, especially as it effects his home state of Florida.