In the June 2016 print edition of Scientific American, ASP’s Andrew Holland writes about the links between climate change and national security. The article, “Preventing Tomorrow’s Climate Wars” dives into what the military is doing on climate change: it goes beyond the rhetoric, to figure out how they’re working to prevents climate-related instability from turning into climate wars. It focuses specifically on DoD action in three areas around the world: Africa, Asia, and the Arctic.
The article is available in the print edition, or online behind their paywall. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. This builds on Holland’s work at ASP on Climate Security. To give you a taste of what I’ve written, I’ve excerpted some of my arguments below.
The Department of Defense Takes Climate Change Seriously
I’m often asked if the military is only paying lip service to the climate threat. No – it is seriously looking at the threats posed by climate change, and has codified that into its long-term planning documents.
The U.S. military does not explicitly say that climate change will directly cause wars, but it does call it an “accelerant of instability” or a “threat multiplier.”Such language appears in the DOD’s formal 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, its major planning document for the next four years. It also kicks off the department’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, a strategic analysis of how to begin to tackle climate threats.
This past January the department issued a directive telling senior leaders they must now assess and plan for the risks posed by climate change. One new expectation is that humanitarian assistance and disaster response, limited to occasional missions in the past, will become part of almost every deployment because the number of natural disasters worldwide is increasing significantly.
Africa: Preventing Droughts from Feeding Terror
American efforts in Africa consist of a light-footprint approach to reducing climate vulnerability by increasing the capacity of partner governments and militaries to respond to threats. Climate change has already impacted terror:
In northern Nigeria deforestation, overgrazing and increased heat from global warming have turned what was once productive farmland and savanna into an extension of the Sahara Desert. Lake Chad has lost more than 90 percent of its original size from drought, mismanagement and waste. Together these factors, along with a Nigerian government that was perceived as unresponsive, led the local population into poverty and prompted migrations to find sustenance and safety.
The violent Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram stepped into the miserable vacuum left by these factors. Though originally focused on northern Nigeria, in March 2015 the group pledged allegiance to ISIS, demonstrating a clear threat to U.S. allies and interests. A chain of causation from climate change to desertification, to food insecurity, to migration and then to conflict fueled Boko Haram’s rise.
The U.S. military efforts must focus on how to cut that “chain of causation” from climate disaster to conflict, by building up partner capacity.
Asia: Climate Wars and Stormy Seas
In the Pacific, the U.S. doesn’t need a light footprint, as 60 % of US forces will be focused on the region after the “Pivot to Asia.” The combination of rising seas and increasingly dangerous storms threatens coastal and island states throughout the region. When combined with geopolitics, humanitarian aid from the U.S. is a potent weapon.
Climate change factors into the U.S. strategy to build alliances in the region. In cases of natural disasters such as typhoons, which are getting stronger because of climate change, the U.S. Navy is often the only force with the logistical experience to arrive quickly, with enough people and materials, to make a difference immediately after any destruction. China’s navy does not have the capability, and the country rarely provides aid to Pacific nations following calamities. The U.S. has solidified alliances with countries around the Pacific by intervening at their hour of maximum need.
A dramatic example occurred in November 2013. Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with winds of 195 miles per hour. The storm drove water inland at 46 feet above sea level in some places. More than 7,000 people died, making Haiyan the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history. Immediately after the storm people became desperate for aid. Credible reports came in that the New People’s Army, an armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, was attacking government convoys of relief supplies going to remote areas. In the city of Tacloban, eight people were killed, and more than 100,000 sacks of rice were looted from a government rice warehouse. Society was unraveling.
In response, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the USS George Washington’ s battle group, which was on a port visit to Hong Kong, “to make best speed” to the Philippines. Once the aircraft carrier arrived, 13,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines provided food, freshwater and supplies. Their presence stopped the street violence, severing the chain between climate change and conflict.
Less than six months later President Barack Obama visited Manila to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that would deepen the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines.
The Arctic: More Effort is Needed
The U.S. military is watching the Arctic closely, as other powers have expanded their presence in the region, especially Russia:
In the Arctic, the U.S. Navy faces a competitor with more resources and ambition: the Russian Northern Fleet. Headquartered in Severomorsk off the Barents Sea, the fleet is the country’s largest naval operation and conducts regular exercises. It controls the biggest icebreaker fleet on the globe and currently is constructing what will be the world’s foremost nuclear-powered icebreaker.
In what are apparently direct orders from President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s military has created a Joint Strategic Command North dedicated to protecting the nation’s interests in the Arctic Circle. The command has reopened cold war bases across Russia’s Arctic coastline, including one at Wrangel Island, only 300 miles from Alaska. Long-range bombers that could test American and Canadian air defenses in the Arctic are being upgraded. And it is worth noting that Putin has displayed a notable disregard for borders and international rules in recent dealings in Ukraine.
But, I’m concerned that the U.S. has not yet been able to secure the significant increases in funding necessary to really close the gap between it and its competitors:
Even so, NORTHCOM is reluctant to expand its Arctic presence, in part because of money. It has said that operations in the Arctic would be extremely costly. As it stands, the U.S. Navy does not have the infrastructure, the ships or the political ambition to sustain surface operations there. The Coast Guard only has two icebreakers, and one of them, the Polar Star, is 40 years old. (Icebreakers are needed, even as sea ice retreats, because they provide year-round access and because ice flows are unpredictable and could trap ordinary ships.) In a September 2015 visit to Alaska, President Obama announced plans to build a new icebreaker by 2020, but it could cost more than $800 million. In a strained federal budget environment, where even the military has to fight for funds, no admiral is looking to add a pricey new mission.