U.S. Army 1st Special Force Command Staff Sgt. Eric Reyes checks the depth of a river that was caused when heavy rains fell on the area days after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 7, 2017 in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico.

U.S. Army 1st Special Force Command Staff Sgt. Eric Reyes checks the depth of a river that was caused when heavy rains fell on the area days after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 7, 2017 in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Joe Raedle/Getty Image

The Pentagon’s Chance to Get Serious About Climate Change

Biden’s executive order is a welcome first step — but there's only so much the military can do.

In March 2019, a bomb hit Offutt Air Force Base, destroying a half mile of runway and 60 buildings and inflicting more than $600 million in damage.

A bomb cyclone, that is. 

The record-breaking storm, along with historic spring snow melt, brought the Missouri River surging over its banks in a wave of raw sewage that drowned about one-third of the base, which is the command center for U.S. nuclear forces. So while the Defense Department prides itself on being ready for any adversary, that March storm showed there’s one threat the Pentagon is not ready for: climate change.

The executive order the Biden administration released on Wednesday looks to remedy that by directing the national security and foreign policy agencies to thoroughly incorporate climate change into their missions. No doubt, once again there will be some critics who question if it is appropriate to involve the Defense Department with climate change in a time when there’s so much to worry about, from combat in the Middle East to the “pacing threat” of China. And while it’s true that the new Virginia-class nuclear submarine or hypersonic missiles won’t be of much use in fighting climate change, it is a legitimate concern for the department, and there are concrete steps the Biden team there needs to take. At the same time, there definitely need to be limits on the military’s role.

Climate change matters to the defense mission for two main reasons. First, as with Offutt Air Force Base, scores of military installations around the world are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, from droughts to floods to fires. These bases are homes where forces live and train. But many locations also directly support military operations, whether it’s cockpits in Nevada for U.S. drones flying all over the world or runways and ports in the Pacific that figure into war plans. To assure they are able to perform their missions, the Defense Department needs to build resilience into these places, including the surrounding communities that host the critical infrastructure. 

Defense infrastructure also presents an opportunity. The Pentagon accounts for a significant portion of federal research and development spending, contracts, energy consumption, and about half of all of the U.S. government’s fleet vehicles. So, when the Biden executive order talks about leveraging the federal government’s footprint and buying power, it is unavoidably talking about the Defense Department. It is common for large companies from Amazon to Walmart to use their scale to advance sustainability goals. It is arguably even more appropriate for an organization dedicated to the public good and funded by taxpayers to do so. Harnessing the Pentagon’s buying power for economic recovery, especially for disadvantaged communities, in a time of crisis is particularly appropriate.

Second, climate change is increasingly shaping the Defense Department’s role in protecting the nation’s security in direct and indirect ways. Most directly, as the frequency of extreme weather events increase globally, the demand for U.S. military support for disaster relief at home and abroad is on the rise. That means more disaster response missions for allies, such as the Philippines, but also for American cities, from Houston to San Juan to Manhattan

Most profound, however, are the indirect effects of climate change on the defense mission. Climate change is already reshaping the strategic landscape in significant ways. Slow onset weather changes such as drought and sudden disasters such as severe storms interact with underlying root causes of instability, much the way the pandemic has, leading to deprivation, unrest, forced migration, and even violence. There’s also a geopolitical effect, most clearly in the Arctic, where the shrinking ice means growing friction between the United States, China, and Russia. And competition between and within countries is increasing as shifts in weather patterns and the transition to cleaner energy put more pressure on agriculture, critical minerals, water, and other resources. 

These potentially destabilizing and geopolitical effects are neither well understood nor incorporated well enough into how the military plans for the future, which seems dangerously shortsighted. Biden’s executive order directs the Pentagon to conduct a climate risk analysis, an important step toward closing the gap. It also calls for the intelligence community to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate on climate change for the first time since 2008, which will help all of the foreign policy and national security agencies better account for these security trends.

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Hopefully, the executive order will be an important step in the right direction toward building institutional capacity in the department — the expertise, data, analysis, and the leadership commitment. While the military role in dealing with climate change has had some public attention over the years, the reality inside the Pentagon has not matched the rhetoric. Multiple reports from the Government Accountability Office as recently as last year have called out the department for its shortcomings in dealing with the effects of climate change on bases and operations. Indeed, the Trump administration actually eliminated the one assistant secretary of defense that dealt with climate change. 

At the same time, while more defense capacity and attention to climate change will help make all Americans safer, it’s important not to overdo the military angle. This is an organization optimized for fighting and winning wars, inherently and inescapably an act of destruction. It’s not helpful to put climate change in the context of a fight with weapons against an enemy; this is a challenge that requires cooperation toward a common end, a massive conclave of human ingenuity and will to harness entire economies and unprecedented innovation to the task of living in a different way. That is primarily the job of civilian agencies, the private sector, and civil society. If anything, climate change requires an entirely different definition of security, one that is constructive, not combative. That is not to say that the world can only meet this challenge through pacifism. All things being equal, most people would prefer peace, but war is unfortunately part of human nature and likely to remain so. The traditional defense mission is essential. But one of the biggest threats to human security at its most atavistic -— the ability to be safe, to thrive, to protect your family —  right now is the degradation of the natural world. An armed enemy may be a more immediate concern, but climate change is existential. 

If the United States, China, and all the industrial economies fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade, then these disparate definitions of security will merge. A future world of runaway climate change will be one marked by even more violence and war, and if that worst case scenario comes true, then climate really will be a military mission.

Sharon E. Burke is directs the Resource Security program at New America and the former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy in the Obama administration. 

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