By Ben Lennon
| “Climate change…poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.” Read these words and let’s hear your best guess as to who might be making these bold statements. Maybe you guessed President Obama. That’s close, but not even Obama goes this far. In his recent State of the Union Address, Obama argued, “No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change” (emphasis added). Maybe you guessed Hillary Clinton. You’re closer: last year, the former Secretary of State called climate change “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.” We’re still looking for someone else though. And as much as I’d like to pretend this was a big set-up and that a leading Republican elected official made this statement, you know as well as I do that this is not the case. No, this quote originates from none other than the U.S. Department of Defense in their Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.
This report represents a significant shift for the military. In the past they have considered the possible consequences of climate change, but it’s only been in extreme situations, and even then they focused on adapting their military installations. Compared to that, the new plan is quite a big step in a new direction. The report identifies three goals: identifying and measuring the effects climate change will have on the Department, integrating these considerations into the Department while managing the accompanying risks, and collaborating with stakeholders to confront the challenges. It considers how the consequences might affect their ability to fight as well as how it might draw them into new conflicts or exacerbate old ones. It reports on challenges they could face every step of the way, from training, to supply chains, to natural and manmade infrastructure. It’s a fairly comprehensive look at what could happen and what needs to be addressed.
I say fairly comprehensive, because there seems to be one significant section that’s left out. The whole report talks about how to respond to the challenges of climate change. However, the military could go much further than that. The fact is that nobody and no organization throughout the world consumes more energy than the Pentagon. The U.S. military alone emits as much carbon dioxide as the entire 160-million population of Nigeria. Only 35 countries in the world consume more oil than the Department of Defense. It has become clear that energy is a serious issue, and the Department is responding to this. There are a few pages in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Report that address climate change and how the military can be more sustainable in the future, and recent numbers suggest that the military has seen a decline, albeit very slight, in oil consumption since 2010. This decline has not been enough to knock them off their perch as one of the largest consumers of both oil and energy across the world.
This Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap has an opportunity to change the debate in the United States. Due to the ongoing but misguided perceived conflict between environment and economic growth, as well as the dedication to the nonrenewable energy industry, many different tactics have been tried and failed to force a change. Framing the debate as one of national security might be our best hope for the current day. After all, U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, states on his website that he knows “that a strong national defense that protects this nation and defends liberty is the most important function of our federal government.” He’s also known for being one of the Senate’s biggest climate change skeptics, and has written a book declaring that global warming is a hoax and a conspiracy. Therefore I suppose it’s no surprise that, upon the release of this report, he expressed his disappointment but lack of surprise that “the president and his administration would focus on climate change when there are other, legitimate threats in the world.” What can we take away from this? When denial of climate change is strong enough to overcome national security concerns, it may seem like the debate has been lost. But at the end of the day, a big victory was still won, and the gauntlet was still thrown. If we truly do want to support our troops, we need to tackle the biggest issue of our generation. It may not be a physical enemy of the state, but it will surely exacerbate conflict and thrust our men and women in uniform into even more dangerous situations. Let’s take the lead from the military, and work to tackle this pressing issue one step at a time.