Climate Change and the Department of Defense

Although not a typical company or non-profit organization, the United States Department of Defense is a massive organization (in terms of influence, reach, personnel, and operating expenses) that considers climate change among its most pressing security risks. In response to the February 2015 National Security Strategy (essentially the most strategic view the United States takes in setting its national security priorities), the Senate Committee on Appropriations requested that the Department of Defense identify some of the most pressing security concerns linked to the threat of climate change, some potential mitigating measures that could be taken in response to these threats, and funding requirements for those measures. In response, the Department of Defense released a document – “National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate” (accessible at – that helped set a path for the Department of Defense to respond to the Congressional inquiry and summarize other efforts to chart a way forward for the DoD (in particular, the October 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap). This essay draws entirely from that document for facts in understanding and evaluating the DoD’s strategy as a basis for suggesting further improvement. (Note: given both that “National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate” is the only source drawn from and the nature of this assignment, explicit footnotes and page references are not included for each fact.)

In short, as the report states, “Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.” This is specifically broken down into four specific types of risk resulting from climate change: persistently recurring conditions (e.g. flood, drought), frequency/severity of extreme weather events, sea level rise, and decrease in Arctic ice conditions.

With respect to the DoD’s operating model, persistently recurring conditions like flood and drought have the possibility of creating much greater instability in the areas where operations must be conducted abroad. Particularly, these conditions have the potential to permanently affect economic activity in a given area (due to impact on infrastructure), thus driving the potential for heavy migration patterns. These migration patterns, in turn, unearth a host of potential issues which cause instability that could either pose a threat to US interests abroad or its partner nations. Specifically, the report cites a multi-year drought in Syria from 2006-2011, which drove many Syrians into urban areas, and coincided with an influx of Iraqi refugees. As a result, infrastructure was overwhelmed – the exact sort of recipe for a scenario where the Department of Defense could be forced to provide either humanitarian support or respond to insecure conditions.

Where more frequent and extreme weather events are concerned, the DoD specifically talks about the type of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) missions it is increasingly assigned, referencing both the 2010 Pakistan flooding abroad, and the 2014 Hurricane Sandy flooding domestically. In both cases, the logistical infrastructure and incomparable range/accessibility provided by the DoD was brought to bear – a scenario only increasingly likely due to climate change.

Sea level change (and rising temperatures) particularly impact coastal infrastructure, which could adversely affect not only economic conditions in given nations, but could exacerbate certain disease vectors due to lack of available land. It is quite conceivable that the DoD is called on to respond to this sort of instability – especially given its rapid access to coastal areas.

Lastly, and perhaps most uniquely among the trends, the thawing of the Arctic poses a real challenge for the DoD (and in particular, the US Navy) due to the creation of new shipping lanes – previously uncharted territory might not only require the need for increased search and rescue missions (due to decreased access to land), but also open up potentially new avenues of competition. In the same way that multinational powers currently contest the South China Sea, it is not inconceivable that a multi-sided contest emerges over newly created access to the Arctic waters.

The sheer magnitude of potential challenges, combined with the literally global presence (and thus increased exposure) of the DoD, requires a fairly wide-ranging set of guard rails to be built into the new DoD operating model. In a broad sense, though, the document identifies cooperation/building partner capacity as the first key step. Specifically, by building infrastructure (like emergency operations centers), training for partner nations, and NGO cooperation to help equip towards tailored vulnerabilities in a given region, the DoD can be better prepared. Secondly, the DoD stresses the importance of sharing best practices with partners.

One additional thing the DoD might consider doing is defining what its specific role is in HA/DR, and thus manage expectations (and drive greater steps towards self-sufficiency) in vulnerable areas.

(Word Count: 800 Words)


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Student comments on Climate Change and the Department of Defense

  1. Your post does a nice job capturing the challenges facing the DoD as a potential consequence of climate change and how they may begin thinking about addressing these challenges. However, your post has made me wonder how feasible the DoD’s plan might be in the context of congressional budget constraints. Given the increasing pressure to cut costs at the DoD, will the DoD’s efforts to address climate change fall by the wayside as more tangible problems are given priority?

  2. I agree with the author that a considered and comprehensive response to the challenges posed to the DoD by climate change is necessary, particularly using its considerable influence to drive partners and NGOs to further readiness. However, I’d all so ask Michael to consider the proactive actions the DoD should be making, addressing its own role in contributing to the climate change it faces. For instance, would you consider it appropriate for sustainability considerations to influence procurement decisions or supplier relationships? How else might sustainability become important or the organizations internal operating model?

  3. What a great article – thanks for sharing! I applaud the initiatives the DoD is embarking upon to face the challenges of climate change, particularly when it comes partnerships with NGOs and other players. As I was reading the article, however, I couldn’t help but wonder 1) What implications would the denialism of climate change amongst politicians have on these efforts? 2) What role can the Department of Education play in educating youngsters about the implications of climate change?

  4. Very interesting topic to cover, and especially troubling since the system the DoD is trying to protect can be the very hurdle that stops it from implementing a fitting policy. As stated by mmd, Senior officials and congress can very much hinder this process as they so please.
    I would even go as far as saying that the ripple effets of a mismanaged climate change in some regions (the Middle East for instance), could very well end up worsening what is felt today as a more “real” threat the Pentagon should be focused on.

  5. Fascinating! With everything you’ve brought up, and in light of the budget considerations raised by mmd, do you think this would be more effective as a model if (1) the DoD builds partners to take care of themselves or (2) the DoD builds partners to take care of regions? To my mind, this could work by having developed countries like Australia (who could partner with the DoD to support the Southeast Asia region) play a bigger role. This strikes me as a more cost effective route, but it’s not clear whether the archetypal partner countries would be willing to cooperate.

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