Climate Change as a National Security threat: The Outlook of the U.S. Department of Defense

The United States Department of Defense considers climate change to be a National Security threat to the US and her allies, and is taking strategic steps to mitigate the effects of those risks.

In 2015, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) submitted a report to the United States Congress on a set of security risks facing the United States and her allies.  The report was not centered around terror or cybersecurity threats, but instead discussed climate change.

As stated in the report, DoD’s strategy “emphasizes three pillars: protect the homeland, build security globally, and project power and win decisively”.  DoD views climate change as a threat to its global security mission – a changing global climate serves as a threat multiplier by exacerbating pre-existing threats to stability, such as low economic opportunity and failing institutions.  DoD perceives Climate-Related Security Risks in four primary areas1: First, recurring weather events such as droughts, high temperatures, and flooding can reduce the productivity of local economies and create a strain on public health systems.  Second, as these events become more extreme and frequent, DoD must commit more and more resources in support of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.  Third, rising sea levels will damage ports, decrease the safety of navigation, and require military installations to be preventatively fortified, at cost.  Fourth, the melting of Arctic ice will create increased human activity in the Arctic, leading to a higher possibility of maritime disasters, to which DoD must respond.  All four axes of Climate-Related Security Risks impact DoD’s supply chain by increasing the unpredictability of demand (process variability) of DoD readiness, with no possible buffers capable of absorbing these variations.  This in turn increases the cost and complexity of supporting global DoD operations.

In response, DoD has taken mitigating actions in pursuit of three goals2: The first goal is to “Identify and assess the effects of climate change on the department”.  To this end, a tool was deployed in 2014 to assess the vulnerability of each DoD installation to climate change risks.  The first wave of results from this assessment has been used to identify installations where a deeper evaluation of risk is needed.  The second goal is to “Integrate climate change considerations across [DoD] and manage associated risks”.  In pursuit of this, DoD has sought to refine it’s existing processes and reduce it’s supply chain’s exposure to climate risk by increasing its strategic reserve (inventory) of critical components, modifying the maintenance plans of its weapons systems, and modifying transportation modes and routes.  The third goal is to “Collaborate with Internal and External Stakeholders on Climate Change Challenges”.  In addition to internal stakeholders such as the Coast Guard and other agencies, this also includes collaborating with Arctic Nations to ensure that the Arctic Circle remains peaceful as natural resources are made accessible by melting Arctic Ice, collaborating with foreign militaries to improve DoD’s ability to adapt to climate threats, cooperating with our allies and global partners to enhance planning in the face of global climate threats, and collaborating with US State and local officials to integrate DoD’s assets more effectively into responses to domestic extreme weather events.

In addition to the steps already taken, DoD should work to persuade members of both major US political parties, both inside and outside of Congress, of the relevance of a changing climate as a national security issue.  The Current political dialogue around climate is so polarized among party lines that cooperation on issues of climate, even when National Security is concerned, becomes all but impossible.  By creating a critical mass of thought leaders outside of Congress, DoD can leverage public opinion to apply pressure to Congress.  This pressure can be combined with DoD’s clear credibility on National Security issues to bring both parties to the table and foster a dialogue that will lead to the allocation of substantive Congressional funding.  This funding can be used not only to mitigate the effects of climate change on DoD, but also to reduce DoD’s contributions to a changing climate.  This two-pronged approach will serve to increase strategic readiness in the short term, and proactively decrease the threat-multiplying effect of climate change in the long term.

DoD must answer key questions on this issue going forward: Will the mitigating actions taken be enough to prevent a changing global climate from crippling DoD’s ability to respond to armed conflicts and international crises? What second and third order geopolitical effects of DoD’s mitigation actions ought the United States and her Allies consider as the international footing around the issue of climate evolves?  These and other key questions must be addressed by DoD in order to protect the strategic security concerns of the United States into the 21st century.

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  1. United States Department of Defense, “NATIONAL SECURITY IMPLICATIONS OF CLIMATE-RELATED RISKS AND A CHANGING CLIMATE”,, accessed November 14, 2017.
  2. United States Department of Defense, “2014 CLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION ROADMAP”,, accessed November 14, 2017.


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Student comments on Climate Change as a National Security threat: The Outlook of the U.S. Department of Defense

  1. Adding to the list of climate concerns for the military is the (already occuring) deterioration of physical assets by climate change. These assets include the DOD’s over 500K facilities in the United States covering 28mm acres of land, valued near a trillion dollars. The DoD even noted that 15 of its sites in the U.S. were already witnessing deterioration to runways, roads, and buildings. Air Force radars are being rendered useless in the arctic, as rising sea-levels have eroded installations. That’s not to mention airbases which can’t even be accessed due to flooding. Lastly, the U.S. coastal bases are already reeling from floods which cost millions of dollars in repairs for roads, bridges, and runways (i.e. California 2016 flooding). This doesn’t even take into account offshore bases, such as in the Marshall Islands, which are expected to be completely underwater within years. How can we maintain our military preeminence if our bases are being erased away?

    I agree with Fidel Cashflow’s conclusion; the DoD needs to recognize climate change as a geopolitical, national security imperative. Apart from its own internal efforts to stymie rising sea levels, the DoD should use its full clout in Washington to lobby for the bipartisan effort needed to combat climate change.

    1. You’re totally right in terms of the deterioration of DoD assets because of climate change. After the comments of a few of our sectionmates, I am less convinced of the efficacy of DoD directly lobbying in Congress. Perhaps DoD can still request funding for climate-change related initiatives from the perspective of mission readiness? It’s tough to walk this tightrope, as Steve mentioned below.

  2. What struck me about this essay is how reactive (vs. proactive) the DoD’s response to climate change within its supply chain appears to be. Which raises the question — should we expect the DoD to set the standards and exert influence over how its suppliers manufacture their products? Beyond this, will the US government allow the DoD to pay a premium for products produced sustainably? The answer to the second question, almost assuredly is “no”, as taxpayers would insist these funds get redirected to other defense and national priorities. Given the impact climate change is bound to have on DoD’s operations globally, it seems to me that in order to have a leg to stand on when lobbying Congress, there does need to be a spotlight shown on how the DoD selects suppliers and the criteria it uses.

    1. I agree somewhat about the reactivity of DoD’s approach to their supply chain, but I do think that the actions they are taking have proactive benefits as well: Putting better processes in place to assess climate impact across the supply chain is itself a proactive step that improve DoD’s footing in response to climate change issues into the future. I do agree that a spotlight on suppliers and procurement processes with respect to the posture on climate change may be helpful, but to other comments I’m not sure how far DoD can go in terms of climate change lobbying without eroding their own credibility.

  3. I agree that the DOD is right to identify climate change as an important strategic issue and that the best way forward is to develop and execute mitigation projects immediately. However I vehemently disagree with your recommendation that the DOD should utilize its expertise in national security issues to lobby Congress for more funding for climate related expenditures. Firstly, any foray by the DOD into politicized issues is bad for the department. It is not, nor should it be, the role of the DOD to influence members of Congress and any attempt to do so dangerously confuses the concept of the military being subordinate to the government. Secondly, the DOD historically holds no specific advantage over politicians on identifying important national security threats and developing solutions. The National Security Advisor, MG H. R. McMaster, wrote a book “Dereliction of Duty” capturing how senior military officers exerted their influence over a number of administrations in order to maintain and intensify the Vietnam War at the cost of offering sound strategic advice. Given that the DOD should maintain a higher level of expertise in military strategy than environmental science, the example of Vietnam offers a constant reminder to the DOD of its role to support and not make strategy. Finally, public trust in the military depends on the DOD maintaining neutrality in political arguments. While lobbying for climate change mitigation funding would run counter to the military as a conservative organization narrative, the outcome of that lobbying could only be a loss of trust in the DOD as a whole.

    However, there are plenty of things that the DOD can do without lobbying Congress in order to prepare for the effects of climate change. Developing natural disaster plans, strategic “O-Plans” and building resilient infrastructure are all things that each department can do without wading into the political argument. As the world’s single greatest emitter I would love for the DOD to be able to take an active role in supporting legislative change, however I believe the nature of the DOD as subordinate to the civilian government and the risks to its reputation are too great for the department to consider the option.

    1. Persuasive points, Mark – I didn’t consider the reputational risks inherent in my proposal. You’ve correctly pointed out that DoD is the world’s single greatest emitter. Can DoD play any proactive role at all, as they are subordinate to civilian government? To Christina’s point, they are being (perhaps appropriately) reactive.

  4. I think this is a really important point to make. Climate change is a reality and is something that humanity will have to face, adapt to, and hopefully solve in the coming decades. Doing so will require broad participation and collaboration across the private sector, governments, NGOs, etc. Unfortunately, many conservatives and Republicans in the US are not on board with the idea of tackling climate change. They do, however, have great respect for the Dept of Defense and the US Military. Speaking their language and having the message of tackling climate change come from a party they respect will hopefully convince many conservative lawmakers in Washington.

    1. I agree MWS about the need for collaboration. Frankly, if there was more of an institutional appetite for collaboration in Congress, we could be making more progress on a range of issues facing America and the world today.

  5. You have correctly identified one of the primary issues and friction points between the Department of Defense (DoD) and climate change – it is an extremely politically polarizing issue. The DoD must remain as unbiased as possible while also taking a very pragmatic view towards this topic. By law, the DoD can not engage in anything that could be considered political in nature. I think it is important to remember that each component of the DoD (Army, Navy, etc.) is run by presidentially appointed civilians (including the Secretary of Defense), and therefore the way forward with the DoD largely depends on who runs the executive branch of government. One of the primary concerns for the DoD, that was not addressed in detail during the essay, are failed states. Climate change may significantly impact food and water availability which will increasingly destabilize certain areas of the world. Large scale wars are increasingly rare in the 21st century, and instead the DoD has found itself more focused on stabilizing failed regions of the world. Climate change has the potential to significantly increase the number of those regions.

    1. Excellent point about failed states: There is a school of thought that argues that climate change has already contributed to destabilization in Syria. You’re right about the lack of large scale wars. I don’t want to seem apocalyptic, but my concern is the potential for large scale conflicts between states because of resource scarcity.

      Thanks for pointing out the need for DoD to remain unbiased. You’re totally right, is there anything DoD can do proactively, or is the only way to mitigate this growing threat to use the ballot box?

  6. I’m really impressed by the DoD’s pro-activeness on this issue. Its clear that its been very thoughtful about assessing the risks to both assets and existing systems that the DoD relies on, and how those may be impacted by climate change.

    To me, the clearest imperative is removing the political log-jam that this issue finds itself in among political circles. Any discussion of the facts is immediately disregarded with charges of partisanship and the DoD has a unique authority in this area that should be able to transcend political party – I hope they use this power responsibly.

    That said, there is significant risk here, especially in the current administration, that the DoD raising this issue is seen as a political maneuver, which not only erodes the credibility of another important institution, but wastes the opportunity and decreases the prospect of effective national defense and readiness. This is by far the most important issue for DoD to focus on, in my view, and messaging in a way that conveys the importance of the problem, but in a credible and accessible way for political actors, is the tightrope that they will find themselves walking. I hope they are up to the task!

    1. You’re right, Steve, about the erosion of credibility that would occur if DoD lobbies this aggressively. Mark and James raised these points as well.

      I think the key to removing the political logjam is increasing the alignment of the incentives of all parties involved (see my reply to Lilian’s comment below). This could be done legislatively by (1) expanding cap & trade, (2) providing massive tax breaks to firms who reduce emissions, and (3) subsidizing firms that create emissions reducing technologies. In order to do this, of course, a government would need to be in office that is willing to do these things.

      More importantly, even the steps I just proposed only help to realign some of the incentives: Fervent opposition that has every reason to stop climate legislation will continue to exist.

  7. Great essay, although it truly terrifies me. I am continuously struck by the fact that the issue is political and so polarizing that cooperation is unattainable. I think the major gap in abridging all sides of the debate is unanimously accepted data and irrefutable forecasts of real tangible impacts. In your essay, you point out that “a tool was deployed in 2014 to assess the vulnerability of each DoD installation to climate change risks. The first wave of results from this assessment has been used to identify installations where a deeper evaluation of risk is needed.” The logical next step in my mind is for the DoD to push congress, or NGOs or private donors, for funding for innovative technologies that can accurately predict the monetary (and societal/security) impacts of climate change. Scientists have predicting the effects from climate change for a while now. Last year, ProPublica accurately predicted Hurricane Harvey ( and And yet, many of our political leaders continue to view international terrorism as more of a threat to national security than climate change. It is human nature to seek out and believe information that confirms our opinions (confirmation bias), and to hold fast (stubbornly) to our beliefs. I think the DoD must hone in on the value system of those who deny climate change. What are the issues that matter most to them? How will climate change affect those specific issues? Perhaps they even substitute “economic development” and “resource management” for “climate change” to see how the naysayers respond.

    1. I agree that this issue is terrifying, and I think it hasn’t gained traction partly because of the nature of the threat of climate change.
      The threat of a physical attack is plain to understand, whereas the gradual nature of climate change and it’s effects seem less immediate.

      Additionally, it is in the (relatively short-term) interest of certain groups and individuals to deny the existence of climate change. Although it is easy to be critical from the outside, it is no surprise that a political leader opposes climate change legislation when many of their largest donors, especially those in the fossil fuels industry, oppose this legislation. These donors, in turn, oppose the legislation partially because compliance with climate legislation imposes real costs on their businesses, as we saw in the EcoSecurities and Southern Company FIN1 cases.

      I think the key to solving this issue in the US is aligning the interests of the different parties toward (1) reducing emissions and (2) carbon recapture technologies that can help reverse the changes that have already occurred.

  8. I’m very impressed that to DoD has ben conducting consistent studies on the impact of climate change on US national security. I would have imagined that these studies come and go with changes in the administration. That being said, I do not believe, based on this article, that the measures being taken will be enough for the DoD to adapt to changing conditions. This is because they have primarily been focused on what the impact of climate change has been in the past and not what it will be in the future.

    Also, the DoD is an agency of the Executive branch of the Federal government and as a result will align with whatever the President’s policies are. It is not in the place of any Federal agency to put pressure on the Legislative branch as that is what the President typically does.

    1. You’re right about the place of a Federal Agency. I’m still wrestling with what remaining options for action that leaves us with.

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