April 4, 2017
As the lights went down in the theater, the host of the film screening, a US Senator, beckoned to me to follow him.
“Thanks for doing this,” he whispered. “Listen, I wanted to ask you something. I traveled to a bunch of military bases last week, up and down the Eastern Seaboard…”
I winced, because I knew what was coming.
“They don’t know about climate change at all! They don’t even know about this,” he gestured toward the screen, where a movie about renewable energy use by US armed forces was unspooling on the screen.
He was not, of course, wrong. Today, there are around two million men and women serving in the active duty force, National Guard, and Reserves, and another 19 million or so veterans—and many of them don’t know much about climate change or renewable energy. Some probably do not even believe climate change is real (others are looking at overhead imagery of the melting Arctic and know it’s real, of course). So, if you approach a random soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine expecting to find a climate activist, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Which is one more reason President Donald Trump’s decision to roll back the Barack Obama executive order about climate change and national security is so troubling. Because climate change truly is a security issue—and it does affect military roles, missions, and capabilities—but figuring out how to deal with it is a leadership issue.
That does not mean militaries all over the world should be training to defeat climate change; this is not an adversary we can defeat with guns and bombs. But militaries do need to consider how changing conditions—such as floods, heat, severe storms, and drought—will affect everything from the availability of coastal bases to the number of training days to the frequency of military-scale disasters (including within the United States) to the stability of vulnerable nations and US interests and allies worldwide.
The Obama executive order was an attempt to improve the US government’s understanding of all those impacts of changing conditions. Specifically, this was an effort to close a gap between the information scientists produce and the information military planners need (“actionable information” in Pentagon parlance). Obama’s order had no particular budgetary impact—indeed, figuring out where not to build new military buildings if we want them to last, or which countries are most at risk for conflict, is arguably an important “cost avoidance” (also Pentagonese) strategy.
I like to think that all is not lost. The US military is assiduously apolitical, and we can all be grateful for that, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped working on security concerns that have sharp partisan differences—such as China, Russia, and Iran. In fact, the new Secretary of Defense told Congress that he considers climate change a valid national security concern, one the Department of Defense will take into account. So, it’s my hope that Pentagon leaders will make sure the work on climate security goes on, with or without an executive order.
Senior Advisor, International Security Program and Resource Security Program