Rick Spencer

The Defense Department is Serious About Climate Change

Net Assessment has been lauded for finding novel ways of countering the strategic advantages that the Soviet Union amassed at different times up until its collapse. But Marshall’s focus on the Soviet Threat essentially coupled the man, the office and the practice to that same irrelevance that the US Defense establishment has viewed Russia since the early 1990s. With the threat of nuclear annihilation by the great bear basically vanishing overnight, popular panic shifted towards the environment as a new source of doom-saying. Pollution, garbage, a hole in the ozone layer, global deforestation, all took the top spot on our fear index, until 2001. How has the defense sector responded to the shift in mission? Where do they stand on climate change?

Number of reorts about climate change from US naional security offices.
Graph by Rick Spencer, data from The Center for Climate and Security.

Let’s get this out of the way: they are not the source of proposals to nuke hurricanes.

According to The Center for Climate and Security, the Department of Defense (DoD) and intelligence community (IC) have authored almost 80 reports on the intersection of climate change and national security since 1990. Production was slow during that first decade, but picked up significantly during the oughts, and skyrocketed under Obama. Let me repeat—80 different reports, not 80 pages of writing, but following a surge in reporting from the IC in 2009, DoD put out an average of five reports per year. The Office of Net Assessment even released a report in 2003 with the delightfully cumbersome title, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.”

There is a long list of reasons that the national security world is concerned with global warming. It is no coincidence that geopolitical stability is tied to economic stability, and some of those “hot spots” are quite literally getting hotter. Hot places getting hotter isn’t the only place to look for geopolitical change. The cold places also getting warmer could change every aspect of the way the modern world is organized. As shores recede, rivers swell, ice melts, and permafrost thaws. What does permafrost have to do with national security? The IMF has reported that for Russia a “…0.83 percent increase in per capita output is expected if temperatures rise 1 C.” While some have referred to Putin’s commitments as “lip service,” others are starting to recognize that Russian activity in the Arctic may not be as absurd as it sounds immediately, and that the way global warming would change both her interior, and her conflict-fraught southern domains, will have serious geopolitical ramifications, not just for the US, but for everyone involved.