October 30, 2014
A Hostile Climate
By Sherri Goodman
Executive Director, CNA Military Advisory Board

On October 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered a major address on climate security at the Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas in Lima, Peru. During his speech, he announced the release of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) most comprehensive Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap to date.

If there was any doubt before, it is now clear that the United States recognizes the growing national security risks associated with climate change. While imminent threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Ebola dominate the headlines, the DoD roadmap affirms that the national security risks of climate change are pervasive and accelerating, and must be included in planning and action today.

The new roadmap requires that the United States work with its allies and partners to strengthen global resilience to climate disruption, including impacts on current and future military operations. In his remarks, Hagel stressed that climate change will affect the DoD’s ability to defend the nation, and that it poses tangible, long-term security risks to the United States and other nations around the world.

The DoD recognizes that when projected changes in the climate are combined with rapid global population growth, especially in coastal and urban areas, there are large security risks – particularly in an era of complex changes in the global security environment.

Whether it is chronic drought, loss of living area due to rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, or increases in vector-borne or heat-related disease, migration or forced population displacement will be an increasing adaptation to the changing climate. As we have recently witnessed in Syria and Iraq, if conducted haphazardly, forced displacements onto already stressed systems will increase the likelihood of conflict and violence. To lower the risk of conflict, we must recognize these threats, take actions to avoid them, and provide early warning.

Globally, 2014 is on course to be the hottest year since man began keeping records 134 years ago, with nine of the hottest recorded years happening this century. Scientists are already observing how these hotter temperatures are changing weather patterns around the world: We are witnessing increased droughts in areas already suffering from water shortage, more extreme weather like Hurricane Sandy in the United States and Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, more wildfires like those that recently burned millions of acres in Russia and Australia, and melting of glaciers that could cause severe water disruptions in the Himalayas and the Andes.

In the Pacific and Indian Oceans, entire low-lying island nations, such as the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, are now preparing to move much or all of their populations as they are threatened by rising sea levels. Soon to follow will be threats to the populations and agricultural productivity of the world’s great deltas, such as the Mekong, the Ganges–Brahmaputra, and the Nile, as rising sea levels will cause fields and aquifers to be contaminated with salt water. These changes will lower food production for entire regions.

Similarly at risk are 15 of the largest 20 urban areas, all located near the coast and subject to increased flooding from the sea and from heavier storms. From a security perspective, it is not clear that these areas are prepared for the impending changes.

The unprecedented pace of change and the first- and second-order effects these new weather patterns will have on a rapidly growing global population are of great concern. In this more populated world, with higher global living standards, our changing climate will have a profound impact on the nexus of water, food, and energy security.

The impacts of projected climate change are not limited to any one region. In an interconnected, complex world, there will be cascading effects that we have yet to consider. The melting sea ice in the Arctic, for example, will surely impact global shipping and energy production. This is a prime example of climate change presenting the opportunity for international cooperation in order to avoid conflict.

As identified by a prominent group of 11 retired generals and admirals in 2007, the changing climate is a “threat multiplier” to security. A similar group re-examined these issues in 2014 and found that the threats associated with climate change are happening faster than earlier predicted, and, in some areas, are serving as a catalyst for conflict.

The bottom line is that the national security risks posed by our changing climate are as serious as any challenges we have ever faced. In the broadest context, the United States needs to do more to strengthen resilience and stabilize climate change, and must demonstrate a larger, global leadership role. The efforts of Secretary Hagel and the Department of Defense should be applauded as one example where the United States is taking the lead and acting now to reduce risk in the future.

Sherri Goodman Sherri Goodman is the Senior Vice President of CNA Corporation and Executive Director of the CNA Military Advisory Board, an American non-profit organization providing research, analyses, and policy recommendations for national security and public sector leaders. She was the Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for Environmental Security in the United States from 1993 until 2001.