Climate Crisis May Quickly Confront U.S., World With National Security Threats

February 23, 2022

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Climate change can exacerbate the root causes of conflict, such as over diminishing water supply. Above, in Mauritania, part of the African Sahel region, inhabitants have suffered a prolonged drought and desertification, leading to a food crisis. Photo: Oxfam International, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Backgrounder: Climate Crisis May Quickly Confront U.S., World With National Security Threats

By Joseph A. Davis

It wasn’t Russia that defeated Napoleon’s army of a half-million in 1812. It was the Russian winter (along with arrogance, denial and perhaps typhus).

For the generals who study war today, however, climate is a threat they understand and respect, even if they have not learned all its lessons.

Yet while the connections between climate change and national security have been very much on the mind of the Biden defense and intelligence agencies, they have not made prime-time cable news much lately.

It was barely noticed, for instance, when Russia vetoed (may require subscription) a U.N. Security Council resolution in December that would have defined climate change as a threat to peace. The United States supported the resolution, as did a majority of the Security Council and U.N. member nations, but Russia saw the resolution as a pretext for meddling in the internal affairs of nations.

Nor did cable nightly anchors make much mention of four major reports (may require subscription) on climate and security that the Biden administration issued in October, hoping to arouse a sense of urgency.

So even as the climate crisis deepens gradually, the world is quicker to focus on more immediate situations, like the potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Long a concern for military

Up until World War I, weather and disease often killed more soldiers than weapons did. After the Spanish-American War, Army bacteriologist Walter Reed became famous for confirming that yellow fever was caused by the bite of a mosquito — today understood to be a climate-linked vector. Sick and injured soldiers are now treated at a major medical center outside the nation’s capital that bears Reed’s name.

Still, the military is challenged by the need to fight in harsh and hostile climates. The U.S. military has developed special tactics (and even special units) for warfare in alpine, desert and jungle environments.


One reason the military keeps bringing up climate

in strategic thinking is that they have learned many

of these lessons at a great price: American lives.


One reason the military keeps bringing up climate in strategic thinking is that they have learned many of these lessons at a great price: American lives. The U.S. military studies military history as a way to win wars.

So military concerns over climate began long before the Biden administration. The Obama security establishment raised the climate-security link back in 2014. A major report (may require subscription) issued that year sounds like what the military is saying today. The concern goes back further. The U.S. Naval War College was studying climate change as early as the 1980s.

Yet during all those years, there has also been concerted pushback from the battalions of fossil-state Congressfolk, often Republicans, who would just rather not take climate change seriously.


A conflict multiplier

Security strategists say that climate change exacerbates the root causes of conflict: terrorism, political instability, disease, poverty, hunger and refugee migration, to name a few.

Climate catastrophe could seriously disrupt the world’s agriculture and shaky financial system. As water becomes scarcer in a hotter world, conflict over water will raise risks of war. The world’s appetite for fossil fuels was seen as one reason for the wars in Iraq. Climate disasters — wet or dry — will drive mass migration within and across national borders.

And not only will global heating promote wars, it will make them harder to fight.

Climate has been blamed as a factor in one of the bloodiest recent wars, the civil war in Syria that began in 2011 and then metastasized. The argument is that climate-worsened drought caused the displacement of farmers, which amplified the political and military conflict.

This theory has been challenged and can hardly be taken as the whole cause. On the other hand, the drought, which had begun years before and affected many nations in North Africa and the Middle East, contributed to the social and political convulsions eventually labeled as the Arab Spring.

For the U.S. military, another dimension of the climate-security nexus is the far-flung array of military bases. The exact number is classified, but there are an estimated 5,000 of them in all, with some 600 of them overseas. The bases themselves can be drastically impacted by extreme weather, sea level rise and other manifestations of climate change which can impair their readiness and ability to operate.


Biden administration reports

The Trump administration did not encourage discussion of climate and security. But on Jan. 27, 2021 — at the very beginning of Biden’s presidency — he issued an executive order telling U.S. agencies to put the climate crisis at the center of foreign policy and national security.

The four agencies’ October reports — from the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — were a response to that Biden administration order and are worth attention.

Their release, we might note, was timed strategically just before the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. The reports reiterated and underlined many of the climate-security concerns that had been put forth (and debated) during earlier decades.

As noteworthy as they were, the four reports did not seem to change much. The world climate conference in Glasgow did not produce the breakthroughs or consensus that many had hoped for. And Congress remains deadlocked on Biden’s main climate legislative proposal, the “Build Back Better” bill.


Yet the four reports were a timely, fresh and thorough

restatement of the many ways climate change

threatens and challenges U.S. national security.


Yet the four reports were a timely, fresh and thorough restatement of the many ways climate change threatens and challenges U.S. national security.

Importantly, they also collectively present Biden’s vision of the need to address the climate crisis with a “whole of government” effort. And they pinpointed many kinds of U.S. climate action that would not depend on Congress or the Paris treaty framework.

Determined to use his executive powers for climate action, Biden in December 2021 ordered virtually all federal agencies to use their purchasing power to tackle climate.

But the order exempted procurement related to national security, combat and intelligence or military training. And even though the Pentagon had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, the military remained the largest emitter of any federal agency.


Many possible world trouble spots

Climate-security experts pinpoint areas of the world where there could be climate-related trouble ahead. Here are a few to keep an eye on.

  • The Sahel region: The sub-Saharan African region known as the Sahel is characterized by a climate-driven herding economy. It includes Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. Since the late 1960s, a prolonged drought (along with human activity) has made desertification a threat to herders’ way of life. Terrorism is a problem in parts of the Sahel.
  • Horn of Africa: This area, which includes parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, has suffered historic drought for years. The resulting hunger and population displacement has not only presented a humanitarian crisis but has also caused and deepened ongoing civil wars.
  • The Mekong and Southeast Asia: The 3,000-mile-long Mekong River runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Dams in upstream nations have sparked conflict with downstream nations who depend on its water. Climate change has only worsened the various conflicts, many of them international, caused by human use (and overuse) of this river.
  • Arctic Ocean: Climate change has heated the Arctic more than other parts of the globe, melting ice and opening up the Arctic Ocean to shipping and other new human activity. Despite the existence of the Arctic Council, international competition and conflict over shipping, fishing, oil, mining and military use of these waters may intensify. Arctic nations include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — along with many Indigenous peoples.
  • Middle East: Conflict has festered in the Middle East for centuries, and the climate in many parts has been harsh. Water has long been one of the many sources of conflict among nations there. Even today, nations like Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran experience conflict over dams on the Tigris-Euphrates river system. The Jordan River has also been a source of tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
  • Afghanistan: The U.S. may think it is done with Afghanistan. But climate change has been one of the many things worsening life in that nation. And the United States could end up reengaging with Afghanistan simply as part of international efforts to relieve the deepening hunger there. Afghan hunger has many causes (including the Taliban), but prolonged climate-driven drought is one of them.
  • Central America: Migration from troubled Central American nations through Mexico into the United States has been a source of conflict in U.S. politics. At times, it has even engaged the U.S. military at the border. Certainly, the drivers of migration include violence, corruption and economic poverty. But climate change and weather disasters have been increasingly recognized as factors. Drought has caused crop failure in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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