How the Pentagon is and should be responding to the climate crisis is dependent on how it addresses it
One of the last things Mark Esper did as secretary of defense was visit North Africa, where he signed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement with Tunisia. The United States has provided money to Tunisia in the past year, but the money hasn't brought stability as the country continues to struggle with poor governance, a weak economy, instabil neighbors, and stalemate in neighboring countries that affect all of the above.
The Pentagon hasn't, however, taken climate change into account in any of its engagements with Tunisia. China, on the other hand, is likely to be particularly affected by sea level rise, severe storms, shortfalls of fresh water and arable land, and its pursuit for dominance of the critical-minerals market, which is so vital for clean energy, information,and defense technologies, that it is increasingly dependent on it.
The Pentagon released a new Department of Defense Climate Risk Analysis, dubbed the DCRA, on Oct. 21, just as the National Intelligence Council released its first-ever National Climate Change Intellligance Estimate. While these reports are by no means the final word on climate and security, it is, to put it another way, the beginning of the end.
When it comes to climate change, theres been a long "beginning" at the Department of Defense. In the 1990s, military students of both the Naval and Air War Colleges published work on the security impacts of a climate that may change in the future. Shortly after 9/11, the Naval Ice Center held its Ice Diminished Arctic symposium. Nearly 15 years ago, the think tank CNA (then known as the Center for Naval Analysis) released a landmark report on National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. The director of National Intelligence produced a National Intelligency Assessment (a more speculative document than essentially AIE) on climate change in 2008, which was never released publicly.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review stated climate change may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict and Congress has for more than a decade quietly granted the Pentagon the authority to implement energy and climate resilience initiatives at military bases and in their surrounding communities.
The Pentagon has remained abreast of any funding or initiatives that explicitly link climate change when it comes to key warfighting or strategy, and the intelligence community has never released another comprehensive assessment of climate changes. Between the 2010 QDR high-level statements and the new reports, theres been a huge gap.
President Biden was clearly looking to bridge that gap when he signed Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, shortly after his inauguration. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin immediately urged the Pentagon to get serious about integrating and mainstreaming all aspects and implications of climate change and security. Avril Haines, the Director for National Intelligence, made similar declarations. The Defense Department has published two publications to date, the first being its Climate Adaptation Plan, released in September, which is focused on bases and equipment.
The DCRA identifies 30 policy or processes that must now incorporate climate risk, starting with the National Defense Strategy, which guides all budget priorities and plans for the future. The document also points to a broader definition of climate security, noting that the primary response resilience, international development, and governance is ultimately the responsibility of civil organizations and civil society. The NIE identifies the ways climate change is likely to be a geopolitical flashpoint, but expresses low to moderate confidence in what that will actually mean for US national security, given the lack of data and analysis that spans scientific and sociopolitic drivers.
These new reports are welcome, if not perfect, but this was the easy part. Real change now comes from the execution of these words, which requires investing real resources both people and money to address climate impacts. One of the Biden administrations biggest challenges in moving forward will be obtaining actual sustained commitment and champions from the military services, combatant commanders, joint staff, and intelligence agencies.
Why wouldn't we overlook the climate crisis when training and designing our weapons systems? Defense leaders would not think of fighting without maps or terrain knowledge, and why wouldnt they ignore it when designing and training our arsenals? Why would we ignore climate change risks if they shape the strategic choices of our allies and adversaries, and worsen existing tensions and conflicts, rather than address them? Why, then, should we not better understand a trend that is already posing ominous dangers to our domestic health, safety, and prosperity, from California wildfires, to this years devastating winter storm across Texas, or Hurricane Ida stricken east coast death toll? It would be negligent to do so.
Militaries have always sought to account for both the physical and human battlespace, and intelligence analysts have long sought and anticipate dangerous trends accounting for the impacts of climate change is no different.
Sharon E. Burke, former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, is the president of Ecospherics. David W. Titley is the founder of RV Weather and a retired US Navy rear admiral. He is the director of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Climate Communications Initiative.