The Competition Heats Up: Climate Change and the Erosion of U.S. Military Power

A fire burns several miles behind Space Launch Complex-3, housing the Atlas V rocket & WorldView 4 satellite, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.  Photo Credit: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP.

By: Christine Bang-Andersen, Columnist

The costs and risks associated with climate change have long been exacerbated by its denial, but the world and the U.S., in particular, has reached a tipping point. Irrational partisan convictions and self-serving economic interests should not prevent climate change from being rightly acknowledged as a national security issue; perhaps even the most pressing one at hand. Continuous denial will permanently impact U.S. national security and the country’s ability to project military power globally.

The results of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) clearly demonstrate that climate change has a devastating effect on the U.S. economy and environment. The NCA is a mandated quadrennial report providing decision-makers with scientifically-backed information on the effects of climate change. The latest edition predicts disturbances to American exports and supply chains, as well as declining agricultural yields, resulting in losses of up to $500 billion per year by 2090 due to crop damage, lost labor and weather damages. [i] That is an almost 10% contraction of the U.S. economy.[ii] However, years of inaction have compounded the effects of climate change thus far, suggesting that the damages may be far greater than the report’s predictions if the U.S. fails to act soon.

While climate change has grave implications for U.S. food security, human security and physical security, its effect on classical understandings of national security, hereunder military installations, planning and the future of conflict, has also become increasingly evident. The military has been aware of the risks of climate change since the early 1990s.[iii] This fact was reiterated politically in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which states that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States…impacting stability in areas of the world both where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exist.”[iv] This sentiment has been echoed by the National Intelligence Council and the Department of Defense (DoD) in recent years.[v]

The consequences of rising sea levels, flooding, droughts, higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather for U.S. military installations have increasingly shown their face in the past decade. In addition to horrific destruction of the homes and lives of people in the Florida Panhandle, last year’s Hurricane Michael caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to vital national security assets at Tyndall Air Force Base. This included the destruction of 17 F-22s Raptor jets at $143 million apiece. Similarly, in 2016, a 10,000-acre California wildfire stalled spacecraft launch activities at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, the flames stopping just shy of the launch facilities. In a less dramatic, but equally critical category, there are concerns that fighter planes like the F-35 have a low tolerance for fuel over a certain temperature threshold, which is being challenged by rising average global temperatures.[vi] The damages do not stop there, as military bases in the U.S. play an important role in driving local economies, meaning that disruption to their activities causes an economic ripple effect in the surrounding region. The issues also transcend the U.S. border, with installations, such as those in Guam, suffering from more frequent typhoons and rising sea levels.

Climate change is also changing the international threat landscape, as it provides new opportunities for belligerent groups to cause harm, increasing the pressure on domestic defense forces, which may become more easily overburdened and dependent on American support. Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of crop failures in Somalia due to drought and the consequent famine in 2011 by withholding food from those it deemed uncooperative.[vii] Furthermore, insurgent groups in Northern Mali used deepening desertification of the region to enlist locals via a “food for jihad” arrangement in 2015.[viii] Developments such as these are difficult to counteract, but will require reconsideration of how the DoD takes climate change into account in threat analyses.

In response to a request from Congress, the DoD published a report in January 2019 discussing the impacts of climate change on its operations.[ix] The report has been criticized for failing to answer Congress’ request for a prioritized list of the 10 military installations most critically at risk, instead giving an overview of 79 impacted military facilities. It also fails to mention installations abroad.[x] Nonetheless, the report does provide insights into the scope of damages. For example, it states that several Washington, D.C. installations have periodically experienced extreme to severe drought, such as Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and Washington Navy Yard, which goes to show the universal impacts of climate change, even in areas not usually considered “at risk.”[xi] However, despite the report’s merit, many doubt that it will spark action.[xii] Skeptics specifically highlight that the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Senator Jim Inhofe, is a staunch denier of climate change.[xiii] The lack of response from the President also seems to indicate that the report has not done much to shift the grounds of debate.

Reversing the effects of climate change is an impossible task, but it is still possible to mitigate the harm it will create. For a start, President Trump should publicly acknowledge the impacts of climate change on national security. This does not require a complete change in position, but simply an effort to consider climate in military planning and analysis. It is unfortunate that the most recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy fail to mention climate change, but with grounds in the 2018 NCA and the 2019 DoD report, this should change in the future. In conjunction, the DoD should develop a fund dedicated to addressing environmental vulnerabilities and conducting robust studies of the impacts of climate change for each Geographic Combatant Command. Regardless of which path is chosen, doing nothing is both ignorant and irresponsible, its passivity propagating future issues. Something needs to change. If not out of consideration of the human, economic and environmental consequences of climate change, then at least to secure the persistence of the U.S. military’s position as the strongest in the world. 


[i] Robinson Meyer, “A Grave Climate Warning, Buried on Black Friday”, The Atlantic, November 23rd, 2018,

[ii] U.S. Global Change Research Project, “Fourth National Climate Assessment”, Global Change Website, November 23rd, 2018,

[iii] Terry P. Kelley, “Global Climate Change Implications for the United States Navy”, The United States Naval War College, May 1990,

[iv] “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018”, House of Representatives 115th Congress, November 2017,

[v] “Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change”, Office of Director of National Intelligence, August 17th, 2016,; “Report on Effects of Climate Change to the Department of Defense”, Department of Defense, January 2019,

[vi] Lieutenant General Norman Seip (Ret.), “Our military bases are not ready for climate change”, The Hill, November 2nd 2018,

[vii] “Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change”, Office of Director of National Intelligence, August 17th, 2016,

[viii] “Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change”, Office of Director of National Intelligence, August 17th, 2016,

[ix] “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018”, House of Representatives 115th Congress, November 2017,

[x] Amy Myers Jaffe, “Climate Change is a Threat to Military Security”, Council on Foreign Relations, January 23rd, 2019,

[xi] “Report on Effects of Climate Change to the Department of Defense”, Department of Defense, January 2019,

[xii] Alex Ward, “The Pentagon calls climate a national security threat. Trump isn’t listening.”, Vox, January 18th, 2019,

[xiii] Ted Barrett, “Inhofe brings snowball on Senate floor as evidence globe is not warming”, CNN, February 27th, 2015,

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