Rising sea levels and increasing severe weather patterns will directly impact military operations worldwide. At the same time, mounting competition for natural resources will sharpen political differences and increasingly risk outright conflict in unstable areas.
As far back as 1990, the U.S. military worried about the threat posed by global climate change. That year, the Naval War College produced a report, which flagged the impacts on naval operations. Naval bases are located, of course, on coastlines. Sea level rise and heating of the oceans and atmosphere have the potential to significantly impact the infrastructure and operations of these bases. In the decades that have followed the Naval War College report, military leaders have continued to recognize climate change as a threat.
In 2007, several retired admirals and generals noted that climate change could contribute to repeated natural and humanitarian disasters. This would cause political instability as governments face demands that are beyond their ability to respond. Climate change acts as a “threat multiplier.” Meaning that climate change amplifies instability in volatile spots around the world. The U.S. military has cause to be concerned because it could be drawn into these hot spots.
Seven years later, in its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department affirmed the view that climate change exacerbates political instability, burdens economies, increases resource competition, and stretches government capacity to respond. This, in turn, creates conditions that are ripe for terrorist activity and other violent conflicts.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged the national security threat of climate change after his confirmation hearing in 2017. And, a 2017 House-passed defense authorization bill declared, “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”
All these worries are already a reality in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming two times faster than anywhere else on the planet. The retreat of ice will open shipping lanes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And, it will allow for oil and natural gas exploration in a region that contains 25% of the world's undiscovered fossil fuel reserves. This could lead to conflicts over control among nations including Russia, the U.S., and China.
Russia has been expanding its military presence in the Arctic, building new airfields and deep-water ports. It has a fleet of icebreakers—ships designed to break through ice—larger than all the other fleets in the world combined. It also has a 40-to-2 advantage over the U.S. in icebreakers, and it plans to build at least eleven more. Russia’s military expansion could create a conflict with the U.S. as the two states will eventually vie for control of the newly accessible region. Coupled with the threat that sea level rise poses to U.S. naval bases, this could present a very real national security threat in the near future.
In April 2018, Navy officials told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee the Navy would release a new Arctic strategy to reflect a future where transit through the Arctic will increase. This strategy needs to consider the national security threats the U.S. will face in a world where Russia may not back down from gaining influence and power in the Arctic region. This is uncharted territory, that can hopefully be navigated peacefully.
Keeping The Peace
Addressing the causes of climate change and working toward solutions is key to preserving national and international security. If we strive for a more peaceful world, then tackling climate change has to be part of the effort.