USA: Climate change and national security, Part I: What is the threat, when’s it coming, and how bad will it be?

Source(s)
Lawfare Institute

By Michelle Melton

As the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review recognized, climate change presents two distinct types of threats: direct threats to government military installations and indirect geopolitical and global economic threats.

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With respect to the threat to military installations, there is consensus that climate change is an existing, and escalating, threat to U.S. military readiness, operations, supply chains and infrastructure because of the direct impact of climate change-related weather events on military facilities such as permanent installations in the U.S., bases and facilities abroad and forward-deployed forces. The unplanned evacuation of 30 ships from U.S. Naval Station Norfolk during Hurricane Florence in September 2018 and the destruction of hangars at Tyndall Air Force Base as a result of Hurricane Michael one month later are only the most recent example of this kind of impact.

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The second, indirect type of threat from climate change is not as well defined. Broadly, the Pentagon has explained that climate change “will shape the operating environment, roles and missions that [the Defense Department] undertake[s].” The federal government considers this risk to include geopolitical threats “amplified” by climate change, as well as threats resulting from a more fragile or shock-prone global economic system. The government recognizes that the effects of climate change—long understood to include changes in precipitation and the hydrological cycle, more intense storm events, increases in the severity and frequency of drought, warmer mean air temperature, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, greater risks of wildfire, changes in plant and animal ranges, and changes in Arctic sea-ice extent and thickness—will have diverse impacts. Some of these potential impacts include food crises due to precipitation changes in Central America; saltwater intrusion and flooding leading to increased migration in South Asia; the potential for conflict over increasingly scarce water resources in North Africa; and social and political collapse due to catastrophic storm events.

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But if the national security apparatus has at least grappled with the question of what kinds of threats attend climate change, they have been less forthcoming in addressing the second and third parts of the threat assessment: the “when” and “how much” questions. With respect to the second type of threat from climate change, addressing these questions is a fraught exercise even in the best of circumstances. Evaluating how fast climate change will occur and how bad it will get is challenging for three distinct reasons.

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