Spring  >>  2010  

DoD Takes Aim at Climate Change

National Security at Stake

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the nation’s single largest consumer of energy, isn’t so much interested in debating exactly how high Earth’s temperature will rise, or what percentage of global warming is manmade versus natural, as it is in viewing the current and future consequences of climate change the same way military planners view any possible threat to national security: What is the worst-case scenario, and how do we prepare?

Dan Stillman
Science Communications Manager
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Arlington, Va.

“Climate change is a dire national security issue, as altered weather patterns, including flooding and droughts, will increasingly push countries into humanitarian crises; tropical storms will displace citizens and result in mass migrations and refugees; and scarcity of food and resources will increase the likelihood of violent conflict in regions of the world where radicalism and insurgency are already likely to take hold,” said retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, president of the American Security Project and of public research at CNA (Center for Naval Analysis, a non-profit research organization). “Climate change will also force changes in how we operate our forces around the world, changes that will affect ground operations and logistics as well as operations at sea and in the air.”

The DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) released in February is the latest evidence of the military and intelligence community’s surging interest in Earth’s changing climate. Last year, the Navy created a climate change task force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) opened the Center on Climate Change and National Security. For the first time, climate change was included among the security considerations addressed in the QDR, a report mandated by Congress that reviews DoD strategy and priorities every four years.

The QDR’s attention to climate change is part of a flurry of activity involving climate change and national security during the past few years, in large part spurred by a 2007 report by CNA. The report, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” which details findings by an advisory board of retired admirals and generals, identifies climate change as “a serious threat to America’s national security” and “a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” It also warns that climate change “will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world,” and recommends that “the national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies.”

Congress followed the CNA report’s lead when it required, in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, that the next QDR “examine the capabilities of the armed forces to respond to the consequences of climate change, in particular, preparedness for natural disasters from extreme weather events and other missions the armed forces may be asked to support inside the U.S. and overseas.”

“[DoD] leadership understand the threat – they realize that climate change and our current energy posture have the potential to affect future operations and military missions in many negative ways,” said retired U.S. Air Force General Charles Wald, a member of the CNA military advisory board. “They also understand that through proper preparation and aggressive research and development, the Department of Defense can play a key role in mitigating the risks of climate change and spurring innovations that can be beneficial not only to our fighting forces, but to the nation as a whole.”

The Case for Going Green

As part of that key role, DoD announced in January it would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from non-combat activities 34 percent by 2020. The reduction is part of a broader DoD effort to use energy more efficiently and to shift toward renewable energy sources at its buildings and for non-combat vehicles. The “DoD Goes Green” website details a number of green initiatives taking place throughout the military.

But a ‘greening’ of DoD buildings, installations and non-combat activities will make only so much impact, since 75 percent – about $12 billion per year – of the fuel consumed by the department goes toward combat and combat-related systems, according to a 2009 study by Deloitte. Furthermore, for the U.S. armed forces, going green is not just about saving money and being a responsible steward of the environment. It’s also about saving lives. On the battlefield, for example, more efficient use of energy has the potential to shorten fuel supply convoys, in turn making them less vulnerable to attack and reducing the amount of equipment and resources that go toward protecting them.

Keith Wheeler, CEO for ZedX Inc. and chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Commission on Education and Communication, explains that the military has a vested interest in taking steps now that would mitigate expected future impacts of climate change. “As we have begun to look at and analyze the threat multiplication associated with drought, crop failure, severe storm impacts, energy supply disruptions and the like, coupled with poverty and dysfunctional governance in many nations in parts of the world where population growth is expanding, we can begin to see patterns where the risk of conflict exceeds our capacities to maintain peace and will impact our national interests,” said Wheeler.

Just as the U.S. is making climate change an increasingly important part of its national security strategy, Sherri Goodman, former deputy undersecretary of defense, hopes that its allies will do the same by addressing climate change in the NATO Strategic Concept, due to be released toward the end of this year. “NATO and its member nations can be an influential voice in addressing the impacts of climate change on the security of regions around the world,” said Goodman, now general counsel for CNA and executive director of the CNA military advisory board.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst: Facing Critics

In the policy world, arguments against capping greenhouse-gas emissions and other strategies to mitigate climate change often cite the potential economic harm of implementing policies based on climate projections that are not 100 percent certain. That argument doesn’t sway Gordon Sullivan, former U.S. Army chief of staff and chairman of the CNA military advisory board, who said in CNA’s 2007 report: “People are saying they want to be convinced, perfectly. They want to know the climate science projections with 100 percent certainty. Well, we know a great deal, and even with that, there is still uncertainty. But the trend line is very clear.”

In contrast to Sullivan’s statement, a January working paper by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which examined how DoD considered the effects of climate change during the QDR process, suggests there are doubts about the science among some in the military community. According to the paper, CNAS researchers encountered “lingering skepticism” in “numerous meetings with and information from military and civilian defense professionals” about whether scientific evidence of human-caused climate change “is strong enough to warrant DoD attention – and whether those changes will truly constitute a threat to the nation’s security even if there is sufficient scientific evidence.”

Such doubts about climate science may also be sown by those advocacy groups, politicians and scientists who are vocal in their opposition to action on climate change. One of the more prominent examples is Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a staunch opponent of cap-and-trade legislation and well known for calling global warming a “hoax.” Inhofe and others who are skeptical that Earth’s climate is warming or that human activities are the primary cause of warming often accuse the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization that produces regular assessments of the latest climate change research, of overstating the threat of climate change and the certainty of climate projections. The latest IPCC report, its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, assigns a 90-percent-or-greater chance that most of the observed global warming since the mid-20th century is due to human greenhouse-gas emissions. (Drafters of the QDR were instructed by Congress to base the review’s discussion of national security impacts from climate change on IPCC data and projections.)

Adding fuel to such criticism was last year’s leaking of e-mails between top climate scientists showing, according to some climate ‘skeptics,’ that climate science is not as solid as the IPCC and other groups believe it to be, and a recent acknowledgement by the IPCC that there is not enough scientific evidence to support a claim in its 2007 report that the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035 is “very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.”

However, in a January statement admitting the error, the IPCC also said that the report’s conclusions that “climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth” and that “widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century” were “robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.”

While questions about climate science may exist within its ranks, the military’s public voice – heard via the QDR and several other reports put out by CNA and other organizations in recent years – has spoken loudly and clearly about the wide-ranging threats of climate change to national security. Phyllis Cuttino, who is the director of global warming at the Pew Charitable Trust and who closely follows the politics of climate change, believes that when the military speaks, people listen.

“When policymakers are getting this info from a source that is extraordinarily credible, not political, in a part of our government that has over its entire history always been nonpartisan... I think those warnings from those people from the military are very, very compelling and just can’t be ignored,” Cuttino said.

Renewed, but Not New Interest in Climate

Climate change has been a serious concern for military leaders since long before the reports and headlines generated over the past few years. Historically, DoD has worked closely with other federal agencies in both observing climate and understanding how it might change in the future. For instance, DoD has partnered with NOAA and NASA on the development and implementation of satellite systems, such as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES), that collect weather and climate data used for military and civilian purposes.

Another example is the National Ice Center, jointly operated by NOAA and the Navy with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, which tracks changes in snow and ice around the world. Of particular interest is the Arctic, where the opening of waters due to melting ice presents both opportunities in terms of new trade channels and increased access to oil and gas reserves, and challenges related to patrolling open waters, competition for energy resources and territorial claims.

As scientific evidence supporting global warming has grown, so has the military’s concern about the consequences. A 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for U.S. National Security,” explored how climate change “could potentially de-stabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints” including food shortages, decreased availability and quality of fresh water, and disrupted access to energy supplies. In keeping with the military’s plan-for-the-worst mentality, the report’s findings were purposely based on an extreme scenario of abrupt climate change.

The stage was set for the most recent surge in military activity around climate change by both the 2007 CNA report and a 2008 National Intelligence Council (NIC) assessment on the national security implications of climate change, which stated, “We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the next 20 years.”

Though it notes that “most models predict that the U.S. on balance will benefit slightly from climate change over the next few decades, largely due to increased agricultural yields,” the NIC report details a variety of national security risks at home and abroad.

Food insecurity, for reasons both of shortages and affordability, will be a growing concern in Africa as well as other parts of the world.

--2008 National Intelligence Council report

“On the home front, responding to thawing in and around Alaska, water shortages in the Southwest and storm surges on the East and Gulf Coasts will involve costly repairs, upgrades, and modifications,” reads the report, which also warns of the risks posed by longer wildfire seasons and immigration pressures due to sea-level rise in other countries. Meanwhile, a “number of active coastal military installations in the continental U.S. are at a significant and increasing risk of damage, as a function of flooding from worsened storm surges in the near-term. In addition, two dozen nuclear facilities and numerous refineries along U.S. coastlines are at risk and may be severely impacted by storms.”

Internationally, Africa is expected to be one of several hot spots for national security implications of climate change. Recognizing the increasing strategic importance of maintaining peace and stability in Africa, the U.S. Africa Command was established in 2007 to more comprehensively support DoD operations across the continent than did the previous regional command structure. Climate change is expected to be a major obstacle to maintaining that peace and stability, with many African countries already challenged by poor living conditions, frequent natural disasters, fragile governments and high dependence on agriculture.

“The U.S.’ new military area of responsibility – Africa Command – is likely to face extensive and novel operational requirements. Sub-Saharan African countries – if they are hard hit by climate impacts – will be more susceptible to worsening disease exposure,” the NIC report said. “Food insecurity, for reasons both of shortages and affordability, will be a growing concern in Africa as well as other parts of the world. Without food aid, the region will likely face higher levels of instability – particularly violent ethnic clashes over land ownership.”

New Demands for New Information

Climate change projections possessing the highest confidence are those at the global level. From a practical standpoint, however, many policymakers and other decision-makers are more interested in what the impacts of climate change will be at regional and local levels. The situation is no different for military planners, who must strategize for conflicts that may break out between neighboring countries due to potential climate-related factors such as water scarcity or mass migration, or for natural disasters at home or abroad that could be made more severe by climate change.

Maintaining and increasing the amount, accuracy and resolution of climate observations will be critical to supporting efforts to enhance predictions of future regional and local climate change impacts and to measuring current effects as well.

“From an intelligence perspective, the present level of scientific understanding of future climate change lacks the resolution and specificity we would like for detailed analysis at the state level,” states the NIC report. “We require improved and better validated regional and local models (accounting for regional and local processes) of strategic climate change, particularly models that provide details on hydrological consequences and changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events.”

Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), also recognizes the new demands for environmental information products. “The need to better measure and monitor the planet to more effectively manage it has never been greater, and this is especially true for our military,” said Colleton, who also leads IGES’s Alliance for Earth Observations. “Climate change is the ultimate moving target and is defining a whole new battle space.”

It remains to be seen whether the military’s desire for better and more detailed information about the planet’s climate and its expected changes will translate into more money for satellites and other Earth-observing instruments, though things are looking up with the White House’s recent proposal to increase funding of NASA’s Earth science programs over the next five years by more than 60 percent. Much of the proposed $2.4 billion would go toward satellites and other tools used to study climate change.

The road has been rocky for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), a system of satellites designed to provide data for improved long-range weather and climate forecasts that in the past has been a fully cooperative effort between DoD, NOAA and NASA. Years of schedule delays, increasing costs and other problems prompted a recent decision by the White House to restructure NPOESS such that NOAA and DoD will no longer jointly manage the system. Instead, NOAA and NASA will take primary responsibility for an afternoon orbit focused on civil weather and climate data, with DoD in charge of a morning orbit geared toward military needs. A precursor to NPOESS, the NPOESS Preparatory Project, remains scheduled for launch in 2011 and contains key climate sensors.

Mark Brender, vice president for communications at GeoEye, sees opportunity for companies like his to help meet the military’s growing demand for climate data. “Commercial satellite imagery collected over time can be a valuable tool in better understanding the impact of climate change on the Earth’s surface,” Brender said. “I believe there will be a huge appetite for such imagery as a verification and monitoring tool, and that will lead to the need for increasingly better imaging systems.”

Whether for pushing the envelope on the depth and diversity of climate-related data and research, or for serving as a test bed for innovative energy-saving technologies, Cuttino applauds the military’s pro-active approach to attacking climate change, treating it as an enemy to be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

“The military isn’t waiting while Congress is having this debate and the general public might be having some debate. They’re stepping out as they have on so many other things,” Cuttino said. “If there’s anybody that’s going to be at the forefront of how to save energy, reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions and become more efficient, it’s [the military], because it’s in their best interest,” Cuttino continued. “If they can do it well, it proves to the rest of us that we can do it well … We’re all going to benefit from what they’re doing.”

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