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Climate Change: A Threat to American and International Security

Americans worried about climate change have had many reasons to criticize President Trump. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate accord. His pick for director of the Environmental Protection Agency has refused to even acknowledge that carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet. And he has promised to revive the American coal industry through deregulation (even though cheap natural gas, not federal regulation, has been the major force moving America away from coal).

Photo courtesy of USAID

Such folly also has security implications. Climate change and fossil fuel dependence threaten U.S. military bases, exacerbate regional conflicts, and put American troops in harm’s way. A new U.S. approach to climate change would therefore also have national and international security benefits.

The U.S. military is one of the few institutions trusted by Americans across the political spectrum. A 2016 Pew Research Center report found 79% of Americans had either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the military to act in the public’s best interest. Meanwhile, Americans’ views of the severity of climate change fluctuate greatly. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who worried “a great deal” about global warming went from 41 percent in 2007, to 25 percent in 2011, to 45 percent in 2017. Americans seeking action on climate change might fare better if they draw an explicit connection between the warming of the planet and the safeguarding of their nation.

Less than 200 miles from Washington, D.C., is the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, home to more than two dozen military sites, including Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. According to a 2015 brief by the Center for Climate and Security, the area is the second most vulnerable region in the United States to storms, hurricanes, and rising seas. Even worse, “some of the most important national security assets in Hampton Roads are also the most vulnerable.”

Hampton Roads is not alone. In January 2018, a Defense Department report warned that extreme weather, from wildfires to floods to droughts, could threaten nearly half of U.S. bases around the world. As recently as April 2018, a study found that Roi-Namur, a Pacific island that houses the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, could be “uninhabitable” by mid-century due to rising sea levels.

The Pentagon has known for years what geopolitical havoc higher temperatures can wreak. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review described climate change as a “threat multiplier,” taking already dangerous conditions, like water shortages and political disputes, and making them even more harmful. This influence is already observable, and there is likely worse to come.

In the years before the Syrian civil war, droughts forced more than one million Syrians to leave rural areas for cities, and the country’s per capita GDP plummeted. Unemployment and rapid urbanization worsened social and political tensions in the country, leading the Atlantic Council to call the water shortage “a subtle driver of the early clashes between the regime and the Syrian people.” This is likely to be increasingly common: in March 2018 the World Bank announced that by 2050, 140 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could become refugees within their own countries.

The cost of oil dependence also hits very close to home for U.S. troops in uniform. Those deployed in far-flung locations often rely on convoys to bring them fuel to power their equipment. But fuel convoys can be very dangerous tasks. The Army Environmental Policy Institute found that, from 2003 to 2007, 1 in every 38 fuel convoys in Iraq resulted in at least one casualty. In Afghanistan, the ratio was 1 in 24 during the same period. In 2007 alone, 170 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed or wounded bringing fuel to their comrades. As Iraq war veteran Adam Tiffen put it in War on the Rocks, “going green on the battlefield saves lives.”

For reasons like this, the U.S. military has been investing in clean energy for years. The Army is replacing diesel generators with solar-powered batteries at forward bases. In 2014, the Navy partnered with the Agriculture and Energy Departments to fund biorefineries, to make 50/50 blends of fossil fuels and advanced biofuels. And in 2016, the Navy launched the Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group whose ships were entirely fueled either by nuclear energy or a fuel made from mixing marine diesel with beef tallow. From 2011 to 2015, the military nearly doubled its production of renewable power.

Any effort to reverse the Trump administration’s approach to climate change would benefit from incorporating U.S. national security concerns into its argument. A warming planet may not convince Americans to call for new policies, but the strength and well-being of their country’s soldiers might. Bridging the gap between climate concerns and security interests could go a long way toward addressing both.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst at Powell Strategies, a communications and analytic firm based in Annapolis, MD. All views expressed are entirely his own. He has written about international affairs and public policy for the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24. You can follow him on Twitter @MDPurzycki.


Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.
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