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​​Photo by Storms Media Group, Alamy Stock Photo

Climate Change as a National Security Threat

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis has spent nearly 11 years living day-to-day on deep ocean, in places where no land can be seen. He knows well the cruciality of the seas—how they produce much of our oxygen, enable most of our international trade, and provide increasing amounts of our energy.

Nowadays, Stavridis, who served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, has a busy post-naval career as a security expert commentator, author, and operations executive for the Carlyle Company. 

But he still describes himself in published writings as “a simple mariner,” and he is a mariner with a message: Ice is rapidly melting at both polar caps. And the potential consequences of this development go beyond environmental damage.   

“It’s a pretty significant national security threat,” he tells Security Management.

Stavridis says global climate change, which is causing the polar cap melt, has an especially “pernicious” effect on national security because it is hard to see and often occurs over time. A terror attack, he explains, captures everyone’s attention and is a visible security threat. Not so for melting ice, or rising sea water.

Nonetheless, he says climate change is a threat to national security in several ways. It is spurring more disastrous and deadly weather events like catastrophic hurricanes; the response to these events often includes troops, billions of dollars in disaster relief, and other resources. “This diverts resources away from the armed forces that are needed to ensure security,” Stavridis says. 

A recent example of this occurred in the United States in 2017, when for the first time in 100 years two Category 4 hurricanes hit the U.S. mainland. One, Hurricane Irma in Florida, was the most powerful Atlantic storm in recorded history. The other, Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, was the second most destructive natural disaster (measured by damage costs) in American history, second only to Hurricane Katrina.  

Both hurricanes required major military deployments. For the Harvey response, officials deployed more than 6,000 active duty troops and 6,000 members of the Texas National Guard. The response to Irma required activation of approximately 8,000 Florida National Guard troops. 

Another challenge, Stavridis says, is that climate effects such as rising sea levels, droughts, and desalinization of water supplies can destabilize countries, which can lead to violent conflict and even full-blown wars. Such instability presents national security challenges because it can breed more terrorist attacks and push the United States into more foreign conflicts.

Moreover, rising sea levels are damaging the U.S. security infrastructure, including coastal military bases, Stavridis adds. Last year, a report issued by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) found that more than 200 U.S. military installations had been flooded by storm surges, compared to about 30 in 2008. CCS is a nonpartisan research institute of the Council of Strategic Risks that supports policies that will best manage the effects of climate change on security. 

Others in the military and government are echoing Stavridis’ view in various ways. Like Stavridis, General David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, also argues that instability caused by climate-induced events like drought can have significant security consequences. At a U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in April, Goldfein cited the Syrian Civil War as an example of how climate change’s impact has already destabilized some nations.

“Most don’t remember what caused the Syria conflict to start. It started because of a 10-year drought.” Goldfein told lawmakers at the hearing (“The Need for Leadership to Combat Climate Change and Protect National Security,” 9 April 2019). “And folks having to move from their family farms into cities where they then were not getting any support, and therefore a civil war began.” 

 In addition, a group of 58 senior retired U.S. military and national security leaders are also advocating for the view that climate change is a serious threat to security. The group gave a few examples of these challenges in a 5 March open letter to the Trump administration. The letter was sponsored by CCS and the American Security Project. 

“Around the world, climate change is a ‘threat multiplier,’ making other security threats worse,” the group said. “Its effects are even used by our adversaries as a weapon of war; ISIS used water shortages in Iraq, in part driven by a changing climate, to cement their hold on the population during their reign of terror from 2014 to 2017.” 

 In the same letter, the group of leaders also noted how disastrous weather events can cause significant harm to the nation’s security infrastructure. 

“When extreme weather hits the United States, it degrades the fighting force,” the group said. “Just last year, Hurricane Florence caused $3.6 billion in damages to Camp Lejeune, home of the Marines’ expeditionary units on the East Coast.”

In terms of the actual frequency of disastrous events, experts point to a disturbing increase in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI), which measures weather events that incur at least $1 billion in damages, found that from 1980 to 2018, these billion-dollar disasters occurred at a rate of 6.3 events per year​.

But for the most recent years of 2018–2019, billion-dollar disasters have occurred at a rate of 12.6 events per year, a significant increase, according to NCEI. Similarly, the number of acres burned in U.S. wildland fires increased from 5.3 million acres in 2008 to 8.8 million acres in 2018, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Given this, Stavridis says that the U.S. military must recognize that it will be increasingly called on to respond to natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and drought. Specifically, he says that the Pentagon’s Northern Command, which deals with non-military domestic emergencies, should receive more funding for planning and training related to environmental events. Stavridis also advocates for cooperation among the nine combatant commands and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so that they can produce contingency plans that will factor in security challenges induced by climate change.

Indeed, the concept of contingency planning is being embraced by others who are sounding the alarm about climate change effects because they say that better preparation on the front end will make a large difference.

Dan Eggleston, president and board chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, advocates that states and localities increase their disaster mitigation efforts now. “These efforts can include acquiring and demolishing flood-prone buildings,” he said at the hearing.

Eggleston also argued for federal support for building code adoption incentives, community preparedness efforts, and emergency response initiatives. “When disaster strikes, local fire departments will be the first to arrive,” Eggleston said.

Finally, Eggleston, like many other advocates, added that risk from climate-related events will only be increasing in the future, so the issue is a long-term one. As explained by the group of 58 military and national security leaders in the open letter, “Our climate will continue to change, and the threats will continue to grow.”