National Security Figures Need to Explain the Impacts of Climate Change

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo Credit: Task and Purpose

In a 2014 Department of Defense document, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sounded the alarm that “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.”[i] Hagel’s warning has borne out. Today, the United States and its allies face mass migration, severe weather, and potential conflict over shifting territory as a direct result of climate change. However, the causes of and solutions to these substantial security threats are not receiving adequate attention, largely due to the polarized political environment surrounding the term “climate change.” National security figures must communicate to the public the need for a strategy to mitigate and adapt to the decidedly nonpartisan security threats posed by climate change.

Within just the past year, there has been a preponderance of events that reveal the increasing burden the US military and national security apparatus will have to shoulder due to climate change. In the Arctic, rapidly melting ice has led to competing territorial claims and increased Russian military presence, leading Secretary of Defense James Mattis to call the emerging region “key strategic terrain.”[ii]

Meanwhile, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are experiencing massive migrations of people, many of whom are fleeing conflicts driven by ecological change. This is the case in Syria, where water shortages and drought caused migration to cities that preceded an urban uprising, and more recently in the Lake Chad region, where desertification is displacing thousands of people.[iii] The conflicts causing the migration are often security concerns themselves, but so too is the influx of people into countries ill-suited to deal with the population shifts. Far-right parties have increased their power share across Europe, in large part as a response to the perception of their countries being unable to handle immigrant populations, such as in Poland, where ultranationalists and Nazis recently stoked political turmoil with public demonstrations of racial hatred.[iv]

At a domestic level, the US has experienced severe natural disasters, most notably hurricanes Harvey and Maria, which caused massive damage and necessitated the deployment of American forces for assistance. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest, and one of the most active, in history.[v] This trend of multiple major storms per season is expected to continue, fueled by waters warmed by climate change. We can also expect more explosive wildfire seasons like that witnessed by California this year. These domestic disasters and the rebuilding that comes after are not only expensive, they take large amounts of personnel to address. Disaster models from Enki Research estimate that this season’s hurricanes inflicted $202.6 billion in damages to the United States, an estimate that does not even take into account the cost of the humanitarian and military response.[vi]

Territorial disputes, mass migration due to ecologically fueled conflict, and extreme weather are poised to continue in the coming decades. These consequences of climate change will require new strategies from the US military and the security apparatus as a whole. But for there to be a robust response, the leaders of these organizations must communicate to the American people, and the world at large, that their jobs are being made more difficult and complex due to the dire threat of climate change.

The range of adaptation needed is as wide as the various impacts of climate change. In the Arctic, the Navy needs icebreaker ships and a whole assortment of new equipment.[vii] At present, the Navy has only one operational icebreaker, compared to Russia’s 40, and building a new class of Arctic-capable ships will take 10 years at least.[viii] To handle humanitarian emergencies, be they storms or fires in the United States or refugee populations elsewhere, better monitoring, training, and stockpiling of aid is required by civilian and military agencies alike. Developing and acquiring these abilities will take time and a sustained effort that is absent at present.

While documents like the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap are a good start, there is a need to recalibrate strategy on a massive scale to address the myriad of challenges that a shifting climate poses. A few prominent national security figures championing this change could break through the partisanship that hamstrings the necessary societal shifts needed to confront the existential challenges posed by climate change.

Americans have an astonishing ability to confront the challenges posed by their enemies. But before this willpower can be harnessed, the public must be informed of the nature of the enemy they face. It is an unfortunate result of the politicization of all issues attached to climate change that makes it necessary that national security figures champion a concerted effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, by explaining the consequences of a more extreme climate through the nonpartisan lens of national security threats, the funding and focus needed to mitigate the challenges can be obtained.

[i] “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” Department of Defense,

[ii] Robbie Gramer, “Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-Up in the Arctic Looks Like,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 25, 2017.

[iii] Peter Gleick, “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria,” Weather, Climate and Society, July 2014,; Ben Taub, “Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster,” The New Yorker, Dec. 4, 2017,

[iv] Rick Noack, “How Poland became a breeding ground for Europe’s far right,” The Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2017,

[v] Brian McNoldy, Phil Klotzbach and Jason Samenow, “The Atlantic hurricane season from hell is finally over,” Nov. 30, 2017, The Washington Post,

[vi] Brian Sullivan, “The Most Expensive U.S. Hurricane Season Ever: By the Numbers,” Bloomberg News, Nov. 27, 2017,

[vii] Forest L. Reinhardt and Michael W. Toffel, “Managing Climate Change: Lessons from the US Navy,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2017 Issue,

[viii] Terrell Starr, “Russia’s Icebreakers Make It King Of The Arctic And America Is Just A Pauper,” Foxtrot Alpha, Jan. 26, 2017,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.