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The Climate Crisis is a Threat to National Security

Experts understand that the climate crisis is a threat multiplier that puts troops and military bases at risk and undermines safety and security – in the US and around the world.


It’s no secret that the Trump Administration has treated the climate crisis like a back-burner issue. Despite the need for urgent climate action, Trump’s EPA has continued to roll back critical climate protections and thwart America’s transition to a 100-percent clean energy economy.

The US Department of Defense knows it too – and has for some time.

Military and national security experts have identified climate change as a national security threat – one that is already impacting military readiness, increasing threats to troops, and jeopardizing military installations at home and around the world.

The Department of Defense recognizes “the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to US interests globally” – even if this administration refuses to. These experts understand that the climate crisis is a threat multiplier that undermines our safety, puts US troops and bases at risk, and increases the chances of global conflict.

Climate Change and Military Readiness

The military is far from immune to extreme weather and climate change. The Pentagon’s top military and civilian officials believe that the climate crisis poses a direct threat to US national security and to the stability of the world at large, making their jobs harder and more dangerous both at home and abroad.

The reasons why are not hard to parcel: more frequent and severe extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and more, put our military bases at risk and undermine military readiness, while at the same time creating the conditions that could destabilize countries around the world.

As just one example among many, in October 2018, Hurricane Michael hit the Florida coast. In the powerful storm’s path was Tyndall Air Force Base, which houses not only the headquarters of the Florida Air National Guard but also the 325th Fighter Wing, a major combat force of F-22 Raptors and a principle training center and testing site for its pilots, maintenance crews, and equipment.

For the month that followed the storm, training and maintenance schedules for almost a third of the nation’s F-22 fighter jets were disturbed, forcing some to relocate to other regional airbases less able to run such a high volume of them.  

According to a Department of Defense report from earlier this year, a large majority of the 79 US military installations reviewed in the report are threatened by climate change: 53 face recurrent threats from flooding, 43 are threatened by drought, and 36 from wildfires.

The report also found a changing climate can effect missions and operational plans around the world. In Africa and the Indo-Pacific region, for example, rainy seasons, desertification, and flooding have already negatively impacted US troop missions.

And unless we take urgent action to adapt to these threats and mitigate new ones, the future of our military bases could be in true peril, particularly from sea level rise.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states, “A roughly three-foot increase in sea level would threaten 128 coastal DOD installations in the United States (43 percent of which are naval installations, valued at roughly $100 billion) and the livelihoods of the people — both military personnel and civilians — who depend on them.”

A ‘Threat Multiplier’

The impacts of the climate crisis are already being felt around the world; lives and livelihoods are being lost to extreme events like drought, powerful tropical storms, excessive heat, and more. Fresh water is becoming harder to find in some places. Cities are struggling to rebuild after devastating fires and hurricanes.

We’re likely to see more of this, not less, unless we take urgent action now to transition away from fossil fuels.

Changes like these could lead to instability around the world – particularly in places likely to feel acute climate impacts, like southeast Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Middle East – by further impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading infectious disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, interrupting commercial activity, and/or restricting electricity availability.

These effects of climate change could lead to unrest between those forced to migrate because of climate impacts and those tasked to manage their movement – and it could even spiral into a larger conflict.

It’s not hard to imagine climate-exacerbated conflict eventually requiring global military and humanitarian intervention from the United States and its allies. Indeed, we got a preview of it in Syria, where climate change-worsened drought was one of several complex, interrelated factors that drove the Middle Eastern nation into an ongoing civil war.

“While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict,” according to the Department of Defense, “[by] placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.”


Climate Mission Critical

America's top military officials are warning of a major new threat on the horizon. By ignoring the climate crisis, we're making it harder for them to protect us. #HappyVeteransDay #YEARSproject

Posted by The Years Project on Monday, November 11, 2019

And a report by the Worldwide Threat Assessment found just that – global environmental and ecological degradation are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent in the future.

Ambassador John Campbell put it best before the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology: “If our partners’ security is undermined [by climate change], so too is our own, even if only indirectly.”

National and Global Security Implications

Syria is just one example among many nations already feeling the impacts of climate change and experiencing unrest, in part, because of it.

Changes in weather conditions over the Mediterranean Sea have already delayed military flights — including recovery and casualty evacuations — from Europe to Africa. These changes have the potential to increase the number of no-go flight days too, leading to delays that could threaten lives.

Warming has also created a new security threat in the Arctic Ocean. As more polar ice melts and passageways open, military activities and natural resource extraction from other countries has increased. It is likely that going forward the Arctic will require more attention from the US Navy and Coast Guard.

In Nigeria, a close strategic partner of the US, desertification and rising sea levels have become a security threat. The country is Africa’s largest economy and usually the continent’s largest producer of oil.

Drought is already creating economic and social instability in Nigeria. The loss of grazing and agricultural lands has forced herders and farms to move south, but these farmers are typically of different ethnic and religious groups than those already living in the south of Nigeria, resulting in clashes between the groups.

The government of Nigeria has already struggled to support these climate refugees.

A world away, islands in the Pacific Ocean are dealing with an existential threat: sea-level rise. Rising seas are already affecting Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands.  On top of rising sea levels, warmer oceans are also helping to power major typhoons that create enormous damage across the Pacific.

If we do not take action to limit global warming, these climate conditions could create a new wave of climate refugees among Pacific Island residents who have played an incredibly small role in the global greenhouse gas emissions driving this crisis.  

The point is, the climate crisis will force the United States to act in order to preserve and protect its national security, as well as the safety of vulnerable people all over the world. Whether that means accepting more climate refugees, being pulled into armed climate-worsened conflicts, or providing aid to those affected by climate-driven events, the United States could be forced into action around the world – at the same time that it is dealing with numerous climate impacts of its own.

What Can Be Done

Climate change poses a serious threat to the national security of the United States – and most countries around the world. We need to make sure we listen to the experts – in this case, scientists and our own Department of Defense – and take urgent action to protect our military readiness and bases at home and abroad.

But to truly protect our military and national security – as well as the safety and security of our friends across the globe – we need to not just adapt to a dangerous new normal, but also address the root cause. And that means ending our reliance on fossil fuels.

You can help in that fight by pushing more and more businesses, cities, counties, and states to embrace a 100 percent renewable future powered by electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Renewables became “the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world” in 2019, so the economics make sense.

We can also take urgent action by committing to natural climate solutions. These natural solutions are non-technological ways we can reduce emissions and remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere and store it in natural ecosystems like forests, grasslands, and coastal wetlands.

And in the end, we can all agree to use our voice, our choices, and our votes to support the world we want – a safe, sustainable tomorrow powered by renewable energy. To learn more about what you can do, be sure to join over 1 million digital activists around the world in working for a clean energy future by signing up for our email list.

We’ll keep you posted on the latest developments in climate policy and how you can help solve the climate crisis.