'No Security Solutions' In A World That Ignores Climate Change

Feb 19, 2020

A panel of national security experts told U.S. senators that climate change is already threatening national security and we ignore it at our own peril.

Wars spurred by a failing climate may seem like dystopian science fiction, but according to experts like Andrew Holland with the American Security Project, climate change is already acting as what national security professionals call a threat multiplier.

Before a subcommittee of Democratic senators organized by Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Brain Schatz of Hawaii, Holland said climate change is accelerating global instability.

“The climate affects issues like food, water, and energy security. Its second-order effects create economic and political challenges,” he said.

Holland says those pressures can exacerbate security challenges like mass migration, citing the case of Central America. According to a report from the American Security Project, climate change is reducing crop yields and forcing farmers to relocate into cities, which Holland says are some of the most violent in the world.

“Those people then turn toward our borders,” he added.

On the other side of the world, a similar dynamic played out in Syria. John Conger, head of the Center on Climate and Security, told senators that a severe, regionwide drought in 2006 and 2007 exacerbated an already volatile situation, accelerating Syria’s descent into civil war.

“We had a tense situation with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Iraq War. A record, multi-year drought disrupted Syria’s agricultural sector and drove farmers to abandon their farms and move to urban areas, amplifying the tension in those regions,” Conger said.

More than 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian Civil War and nearly 12 million displaced.

The security threat of climate change is also being felt at home. In her remarks to open the discussion, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth cited nearly $10 billion in damage to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from two hurricanes in 2018 alone.

“While these places may rebuild over time, the loss of training and readiness cannot be recovered. Because of the damage from the storm, one third of the entire combat power the Marine Corps has been degraded and will continue to degrade,” she said.

Duckworth served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot in the Iraq War. She had both legs amputated after a rocket propelled grenade hit her UH-60 Blackhawk. She attended McKinley High School in Honolulu and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz questioned the wisdom of rebuilding vulnerable coastal installations, while acknowledging the difficult reality of closing military bases, which are often economic engines in their communities.

“Otherwise, we’re going to keep building and rebuilding the same city over and over again because we’re afraid of making a particular member of Congress angry,” Schatz said.

John Conger says it’s not simply a matter of shuttering all coastal facilities. He said in the case of Tyndall Air Force Base, the Air Force made the decision that access to the training ranges provided by the facility justified making repairs.

“That was an asset they didn’t want to lose and they were willing to accept the risk of extreme weather in that location. But they did the analysis,” Conger told lawmakers.

A 2019 Pentagon report found that 46 of 79 bases surveyed, or almost 60 percent, were at risk of some form of climate change-related degradation due to problems like recurrent flooding, wildfires and drought.

Two Hawaii facilities made the list, Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and Fort Shafter, where recurrent flooding is already a problem. Both flooding and drought are already considered concerns at Pearl Harbor, with the potential for wildfire hazards in the future.

Although the U.S. military has in many ways become the preferred foreign policy tool of American policymakers in recent decades, Holland says there are no security solutions in a world that ignores the challenges of climate change.

“A world of drastically changed food supplies, sea levels, and water availability would be a world that would be beyond the capability of global military forces to secure,” Holland said in his closing remarks.

The capacity of the U.S. military isn’t likely to increase substantially in coming years. The federal government is already running a record budget deficit, and the Defense Department just announced that it is diverting $3.8 billion in funds intended to buy more ships for the Navy and new planes for the Air Force.

That money will instead be spent on President Trump’s border wall.