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Our Climate Is Our Security

By Chloe Thompson
U.S. News & World Report
August 1, 2017

Climate change has historically been a controversial topic, and former President Barack Obama was sharply criticized for addressing it during his time in office. However, the issue may be losing some of its political toxicity of late. More and more professionals and politicians on both sides of the aisle have begun speaking openly about the linkage between the environment and America's national security.

For example, Richard V. Spencer, President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of the Navy, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "The Navy is totally aware of rising water issues, storm issues... We must protect our infrastructure, and I will work hard to make sure we are keeping an eye on that because without the infrastructure, we lose readiness."

Spencer is not the only current appointee who has expressed this concern. During his confirmation process for the post as secretary of defense this spring, Gen. James Mattis wrote in the question/response period: "Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon."

Such statements reflect a growing - and welcome - awareness of the national security implications of changing global environments. From shifting temperatures to desertification, environmental changes have the potential to significantly affect the movement of populations, the availability of resources and the stability of governments. The results can be famine, drought, disease and a rise in global conflict.

For this reason, the United States military already regards environmental factors as a national security threat. Two years ago, in response to questions from Congress, the Pentagon issued a report identifying the specific environment-related threats facing each geographic combatant command. The list of factors enumerated by the Pentagon was daunting, and included sea level rise, more frequent and more severe weather events, a significant decrease in Arctic ice cover and the risks of more devastating floods and higher temperatures, among many others.

And these aren't all hypothetical situations - some climate change effects are adversely impacting the military now. The Naval station in Norfolk, Virginia, the headquarters of the Atlantic fleet, already floods 10 times a year. The sea level at the base has risen 14.5 inches since it was built at the end of World War I. Each flood detracts from military readiness and slows the normal operations of the base.

The linkage of such issues to American national security is clear. Environmental changes have the potential to stress allies, to complicate the deployment of U.S. forces and to exacerbate existing ethnic and sectarian divides, all of which may end up becoming the Pentagon's problem on either a budgetary or an operational level.

America's political elite now appear ready to broach this topic in earnest. Growing awareness of climatological factors is now evident on both sides of Capitol Hill, and on both sides of the partisan divide. Thus, in its latest authorization for defense spending, the House Armed Services Committee included an amendment requiring the Department of Defense to issue a report on the top 10 U.S. military installations at risk from environmental threats in each geographic combatant command. Specific problems to be considered include rising sea levels, increased risk of wildfires and dislocation brought about by droughts. The report is also intended to include recommendations as to how to best address these challenges.

A focus on environmental issues may be unexpected in today's hyper-partisan political atmosphere. But it is undoubtedly a good sign, because American policymakers of all political persuasions will be instrumental in preparing the nation to properly respond and adapt to the national security implications of a changing global environment.

Chloe Thompson is a research fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and editor of the Council's "Resource Security Watch" e-bulletin.

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Related Categories: Energy Security; Military; International Economy

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