Pragmatic Military

Sep. 7, 2018

Military leaders have long viewed climate change as a national security threat. Like many within the defense community—including most of our military leaders—Defense Secretary James Mattis not only believes in climate change but also believes it’s making his job harder. It’s putting our service members in danger by “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. The effects of a changing climate—such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others—impact our security situation.”  He also affirmed that “climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response.”

Unfortunately, the political debates surrounding climate change have impacted any such government response. The current administration is scrubbing references to climate change from government documents from the EPA to NOAA to the Department of Defense. Was Mattis pressured by other members of the administration, or perhaps by Trump himself, to “disappear” climate change from his report? If that’s actually the case, then we’re faced with a disturbing possibility: that the White House is actively compromising our national security—suppressing information about real, measurable threats to our military—in an attempt to bring the Pentagon more in line ideologically with other Cabinet departments where climate denial is the order of the day.

Why should the informed analysis of a highly decorated four-star general outweigh the fatuous ravings of an ex–reality TV star who recently suggested that global warming can’t be real because it’s “getting too cold all over the place” and said the polar ice caps are in such great shape that “they’re setting records”?

A recent DoD report suggests that the natural disasters associated with climate change impact over half of U.S. military sites worldwide. 1,700 U.S. military sites have already been affected by floods, wildfires, droughts and other weather extremes that are exacerbated by rising global temperatures. “If extreme weather makes our critical facilities unusable or necessitate costly or manpower-intensive work-arounds, that is an unacceptable impact," says the report, which was prepared by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

Climate change has the ability not only to hamper military operations, but to stir up instability in already-unstable parts of the world. For example, researchers have found that a severe drought helped kindle the Syrian civil war. Climate change can spark mass migrations which will cause political instability.

In 2003, during the Bush administration, a Pentagon report warned that climate change could spark "a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water," triggering conflicts. A decade later, under President Obama, the Defense Department found that climate change will "aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries."

The pragmatic military is taking climate change seriously because it has to. Unlike its Commander in Chief, it is not involved in a reality show — it has to deal with actual reality.