The US military is about to find itself committed to yet another unwinnable mission costing trillions of dollars.
No, we are not referring to the possibility of American escalation in Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine: We are referring to the grim prospect of the American military’s having to attempt to provide national security in a rapidly warming world.
In the zeitgeist of this moment – Ukraine’s city and dwindling population of Mariupol cut off from proper access to food and water by Russian troops, 40-year high inflation rates, and COVID-19-related crisis fatigue – the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, focusing on mitigation, might receive short shrift.
This would be a mistake.
The climate crisis is here, it is inextricably intertwined with American national security, and it requires that our nation take urgent, sweeping action to protect our military from its worst effects. The most recent IPCC report made it clear that nations are not doing nearly enough to prevent global warming from increasing to dangerous levels within the lifetimes of most people on Earth today.
Climate change’s effects are far larger in both magnitude and breadth – and therefore should be treated as a far larger threat to Americans – than the negative-sum wars of the past two decades. For that, our government was willing to commit 20 years, 8 trillion dollars, more than 7,000 US military lives, and yet climate change, an existential threat, receives a much smaller share of public investment and of public attention. This is not a rational, threat-based allocation of resources … and it is to this nation’s collective detriment.
Climate change impacts on national security
But it is the linkage between climate science and foreign policy that is often undermentioned. National security will be adversely impacted by the climate crisis across at least three levels.
First, the Department of Defense will be pressured to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint because the US military now produces more greenhouse gas emissions than up to 140 countries. DOD will pursue this reduction through improved base operations and the decarbonization of fleet emissions from vehicles and ships. Microgrid technology, for instance, would not only increase resilience in the event of power loss, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions using a network of distributed, onsite generation assets and battery storage.
Second, the military will have to take preventive measures as sea-level rise, drought, wildfires, tornadoes, and desertification threaten infrastructure at critical facilities both at home and abroad. In 2018, DOD found that thousands of bases and installations – more than half – reported exposure to at least one climate-related impact. These facilities are critical as power projection platforms, and any impairment to their ability to operate reduces our military’s ability to ensure America’s security.
Third, drought and famine in already unstable regions of the world will cause mass migrations leading to civil unrest and the collapse of weak governments and the expectation that the United States military would act to restore order. These climate events could occur concurrently or follow one another closely and stress the US military beyond its capacity to respond, thereby weakening its ability to respond to traditional threats.
Sound climate policy makes for sound national security
In short: For every fractional increase in temperature from climate change, the costs of maintaining peace – and the likelihood that such peace will be unstable – will increase exponentially.
The epiphany that sound climate policy provides a basis for sound national security must not arrive after the fact.
It’s important to mention that these costs will be felt not only in an abstract, macro-economic sense, but intimately, at-home, impacting America’s sons and daughters in uniform. Climate chaos can lead to more hazardous deployments, more persistent and more intractable conflicts, more time spent separated from families, more problems attracting and retaining qualified personnel to our all-volunteer force, and diminished national prosperity.
The US military is not – and never can be – fully equipped to provide global security amidst a tsunami of political, social, environmental, and economic upheaval caused by human-caused climate change. But as a world leader, what we can do, and have an obligation to do, is decarbonize industry and our way of living in-line with what science says is required to stay below the safer warming limit of 1.5 C degrees.
Follow objective scientific evidence … and take action
It is our hope that American politicians, voters, and citizens as yet unmoved by the objective evidence found in climate science or the emotional inducement found in global pleas for help, find reason to act given the stark reality that further hesitation is setting up this nation’s military for failure.
What the latest IPCC report casts into relief is that the US military, businesses, government, and individuals can no longer credibly claim that they support our nation’s military while simultaneously dithering on climate action. Anything short of revolutionary decarbonization would be a global tragedy and a national betrayal of every member of the American military.
In our aspiration to ensure that the world is safe for freedom and democracy, we must start with a more humble and sobering realization: We must first keep the world safe for life on it.
Major General Dennis Laich retired from the Army in 2006 after more than 35 years of service. He is a graduate of the Army War College and author of Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots.
Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to the late-Colin Powell, former Secretary of State. He is the distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Erik Edstrom graduated from West Point in 2007 and deployed to direct combat as an infantry officer in Afghanistan. He is the author of Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of our Longest War and a Senior Fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network. He holds a graduate degree in climate science from the University of Oxford.