Obama Orders Pentagon To Plan For Climate Change

Pentagon: we’ve been doing this since 2003

USS Normandy North Of Iceland

USS Normandy North Of Iceland

Warming and rising seas have big implications for the whole world, including the United States Navy.Ryan Birkelbach, U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

“Climate change poses a significant and growing threat to national security, both at home and abroad,” declared a memorandum from the White House to the heads of executive departments and agencies. With the United States about to enter its 15th year of fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and with the fight against ISIS in Iraq spilling over into Syria more and more, it may seem odd for the President to direct resources towards a less direct threat. Does it really make sense for the United States military to spend resources on fighting climate change instead of defeating ISIS?

Yes. And not just yes, but the Pentagon's been planning for climate change for years. Published in October 2003, just half-a-year after the United States invaded Iraq for the second time, "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security," warned of new wars fought over dwindling resources as the climate changed. The study, commissioned by the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, foreshadows a lot of the fears contained in the recent policy memorandum.

Compare this section from "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario"

As global and local carrying capacities are reduced, tensions could mount around the world, leading to two fundamental strategies: defensive and offensive. Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbors, may initiate in struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy. Unlikely alliances could be formed as defense priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honor.

To this section from yesterday’s White House memorandum:

Impacts of a changing climate can create conditions that promote pest outbreaks and the spread of invasive species as well as plant, animal, and human disease, including emerging infectious disease, and these can further undermine economic growth and livelihoods. Impacts can also disrupt transportation service, cutting off vulnerable communities from relief immediately after events and reducing economic output. These conditions, in turn, can stress some countries' ability to provide the conditions necessary for human security. All of these effects can lead to population migration within and across international borders, spur crises, and amplify or accelerate conflict in countries or regions already facing instability and fragility.

That 2003 report was just the first of many from the Pentagon about the dangers climate change poses to national security. The Center For Climate and Security has a full timeline of military interest in climate change; what follows are highlights from that timeline, specifically with a United States focus.

"These risks will require managing the divergent needs of massively increasing energy demand to maintain economic development and the need to tackle climate change," read the 2008 National Defense Strategy of the United States.

The United States Navy, which of all the military branches faces the most risk from rising sea levels, formed a task force on Climate Change in 2009, and published a roadmap on climate change in 2010. From that roadmap:

Climate change is a national security challenge with strategic implications for the Navy. Climate change will lead to increased tensions in nations with weak economies and political institutions. While climate change alone is not likely to lead to future conflict, it may be a contributing factor. Climate change is affecting, and will continue to affect, U.S. military installations and access to natural resources worldwide. It will affect the type, scope, and location of future Navy missions.

In 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote about the implications of sea-level change for civil works projects. Another report that year from the Defense Science Board looked at the security implications of climate change.

In 2012, Homeland Security released a report on climate change. So did the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, with a a report on Global Water Security for the State Department, noting that "During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important U.S. policy objectives." The study looked out as far ahead as 2040, and said simply, "Climate change will cause water shortages in many areas of the world."

And that's just the reports from the first term of George W. Bush's through to the end of Barack Obama's first term. The Climate and Security chronology includes at least 12 other reports in the past four years, and that's leaving out anything from 2016.

What the new memorandum from the White House is doing is coordinating a lot of this previous work, and putting greater emphasis on climate security in the universe of security concerns. And it’s an instance where the Pentagon was already thinking about the implications of climate on security. Now there’s just a greater mandate to do so.