The “Hot War”: How Will the Department of Defense Fight a Warming Planet?

How will the Department of Defense win the “Hot War” of the 21st Century? By taking the offensive.

The United States Department of Defense faces a new, insidious enemy—a threat that can destroy key U.S. bases, weaken allies, and strike deep within the homeland [1].

What Is the Threat?

According to the Department of Defense, climate change is a “threat multiplier” because its effects “will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict” [2].  Rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events will have a direct impact on the United States’ strategic and defensive interest,  But climate change is also indirectly threatening the United States, and is expected to generate more political instability and mass migrations in decades to come.

Rising Sea Levels.  Rising sea levels will increasingly threaten strategic military bases in the United States and throughout the world.  NASA estimates that global sea levels rose an average of 6.7 inches (17 centimeters) during the 20th century [3], and may rise as much as 3 feet or more during the 21st century [4].

Consequently, as many as 19 key military bases may be jeopardized by rising sea levels [5].  For example, one study estimates that four bases, including NAS Key West, are at risk of losing 75-95% of their land by 2100 (see chart below) [6].  The Department of Defense will need to decide between environmental mitigation, land reclamation or complete relocation strategies for these bases [7].


          Unpredictable, Extreme Weather.  Event attribution—especially in the case of climate change—remains a probabilistic science [8].  However, annual reports by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have repeatedly cited climate change as an influencing factor for extreme weather and climate events [9].

Extreme weather events can hinder military and intelligence operations.  For example, extreme storms may inhibit aerial surveillance or reconnaissance capabilities, or may increasingly divert military resources towards humanitarian assistance following extreme weather occurrences [10].

Global Instability.  Climate change also poses severe indirect threats to the United States.  For example, the increasingly impactive effects of climate change—such as water shortages or disruptions or reductions in agricultural production—could cause political instability and mass migrations in developing countries [11].

“Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is a potential source of crisis,” admits U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director John O. Brennan, “Extreme weather, along with public policies affecting food and water suppliers, can worsen or create humanitarian crises.  Of most immediate concern, sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia” [12].

Fighting the “Hot War”

The Department of Defense now recognizes climate change as “a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk” [13].

For now, the Department of Defense is responding with dual strategies of Adaptation (planning for climate change effects) and Mitigation (reducing the Department’s contribution to climate change) [14].  The Department of Defense is now using climate change considerations for evaluating and modifying its range of military and supply chain operations, including its training and testing programs and its artificial and natural infrastructures [15].

Unfortunately, these dual strategies are reactive, and only deal with the symptoms of climate change.  Even the three goals outlined in the Department of Defense’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap—to identify and assess the effects of climate change, to incorporate climate change considerations across the full range of missions and activities, and to collaborate with internal and external entities to understand, assess and respond to climate change realities—do not address the root of the problem.

In the case of climate change, the Department of Defense should heed the advice of one of their most respected strategists.  More than two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu advised that “[s]ecurity against defeat implies defensive tactics,” but the “ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive” [16].

In a similar way, the Department of Defense should take the offensive against climate change.  While they are already taking significant steps to “green” the Department of Defense, these steps are reactive.  The Department of Defense also needs to speak louder and more often on this issue, to help evangelize the United States and its allies on the imminent dangers presented by a warming planet.

Otherwise, the “Hot War” of the 21st Century might be our last war.

(739 words)

[1]  With an annual budget of $582.7 billion, the Department of Defense is one of the largest government entities in the world.  See “Department of Defense (DoD) Releases Fiscal Year 2017 President’s Budget Proposal,” Press Release, U.S. Department of Defense (Feb. 9, 2016), available at

[2]  2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, U.S. Department of Defense (2014), available at

[3]  “Historical Records May Underestimate Sea Level Rise,” NASA Global Climate Change (Oct. 19, 2016) (noting that scientists may have underestimated the average sea level rise due to ineffective placement of measuring instruments), available at

[4]  As Our Ocean Warms, Sea Level Rises, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (accessed November 2016), available at

[5]  “General Keys: The Military Thinks Climate Change Is Serious,” The Center for Climate & Security: Exploring the Security Risks of Climate Change (July 7, 2016), available at

[6]  “The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas,” Union of Concerned Scientists (accessed November 2016), available at

[7]  Id.

[8]  Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 96, No. 12 (December 2015), available at

[9]  “New Report Finds Human-Caused Climate Change Increased the Severity of Many Extreme Events in 2014,” Press Release, NOAA (Nov. 5, 2015), available at

[10]  2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, supra FN [1] p.4.

[11]  See, e.g., Security Address, Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Feb. 15, 2011), available at

[12]  Brennan Delivers Remakrs at the Center for Strategic & International Studies Global Security Forum 2015, Press Release, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (Nov. 16, 2015), available at

[13]  National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, Department of Defense, Report Ref. Id. 8-6475571 p.14 (July 23, 2015), available at

[14]  2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, supra FN [1] p.1.

[15]  2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, supra FN [1] pp.1-2.

[16]  The Art of War, Sun Tzu, Para. IV.5, available at


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Student comments on The “Hot War”: How Will the Department of Defense Fight a Warming Planet?

  1. I find this analysis interesting and well-researched, but I’m not sure I fully agree with your conclusions. The DoD certainly is undertaking major efforts to attempt to better cope with the effects of climate change, as you point out. It has invested heavily in solar energy in an attempt to lighten the physical load that soldiers must carry and in order to reduce the logistics strain introduced by needing to transport enormous quantities of fuel to isolated battle zones [1]. Additionally, the Air Force is making similar investments in renewable biofuels to power its aircraft and the Army is attempting to make its bases emission neutral in energy usage [2].

    However, I would disagree that the DoD needs to “take the offensive” and “evangelize”. The operating model of the DoD is, as I read it, to carry out the orders of the commander-in-chief and civilian government to protect the security and commerce of the United States. As admirable as a certain political view may be, I think it is far outside the DoD’s function or core competency to strongly advocate for it in the public domain. While DoD personnel will always have views- for example, they surely have advised Presidents over the years as to their views on the appropriate numbers of nuclear weapons during arms negotiations with Russia/the Soviet Union- I think expression and advocacy of those views in public would be inappropriate, even if we might happen to agree with them. This was the mistake made by Douglas MacArthur and Stanley McChrystal. As you point out, the Pentagon has already been fairly vocal about its view on this subject [3], and I would not expect or want them to turn into an advocacy organization except inasmuch as it makes it views known to the other branches of government in an advisory capacity.

    [1] Erwin, Sandra. “Army, Marines Face Uphill Battle To Lighten Troops’ Battery Load”. National Defense Magazine. May 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
    [2] Zaffos, Joshua. “US Military Forges Ahead With Plans To Combat Climate Change”. Scientific American. April 2, 2012. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
    [3] Werrell, Caitlin, and Francesco Femia. “On the Record: Climate Change as a National Security Risk According to U.S. Administration Officials”. The Center For Climate and Security. February 20, 2014. Retrieved 6 November 2016.

    1. Captain Koloth, I agree with many of your thoughts, particularly those about offensively fighting climate change not being in the DOD’s core strengths or stated mission. That said, I do think HCL has an important point around the DOD needing to play a significant role in the climate change discussion.

      As the largest employer on earth, the US Military is in a unique position to train millions of people how to lead a lifestyle and that minimizes environmental impact. From choosing products that are sustainably produced to using fuel-efficient vehicles, the DOD is indoctrinating a mindset of sustainability into its people. If these people each apply these sustainability tactics in their own lives, and potentially share their views with others personally, there is a chance the DOD starts a domino effect that meaningfully impacts daily consumer decisions that create climate side effects. Subsequently, these DOD employees will likely go work in other American corporations that they can also positively influence to make sustainable choices. Ideally, a similar domino effect ensues.

      From a global perspective, the US Military is involved in training missions across the globe. If sustainable practices become part of the DOD ethos, they will become a natural part of these training missions, allowing the DOD’s sustainability mindset to expand globally.

  2. You hit the nail on the head regarding the threat climate change poses to global instability – I have witnessed it firsthand in Afghanistan. Energy poverty, food shortages, and water scarcity (among other related issues) represent some of the primary drivers that cause social and political instability as well as create an environment ripe for conflict. However, I would argue against your assertion that the Department of Defense should “take the offensive” against climate change. While the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps should integrate sustainable practices for a tactical advantage, these institutions are warfighting organizations built for that sole purpose. If the United States truly cares about this issue, they should leverage the other instruments of national power (i.e., diplomatic, informational, and economic) to push a national agenda which addresses climate change. It is a well-known fact that the world population is going to approach 9.2 billion by 2050 and most of this increase will be borne in less develop regions that will suffer the most from the effects of climate change.[1] The military can do little to change this fact, but government policy can help spur the innovative technologies needed to address the issue of resource scarcity and climate change.

    [1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” (New York: Picador, 2009), p. 65.

  3. HCL, thanks for this great analysis and interesting perspective. It definitely makes sense that climate change poses a national security threat to the US in terms of rising sea levels, volatile and increasingly dangerous weather, and political instability. I noticed the DoD’s website states, “the mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.” In this light, I believe in principle that your point that the DoD should go on the offensive to fight climate change makes sense. I am wondering though what specific proactive actions you would recommend? Are there any cases of the DoD engaging in these types of offensives in the past?

    Very thought provoking, thanks!!

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