Earlier this summer, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, expressed his view that climate change is real and poses a threat to national security. Following his January confirmation hearing, Mattis provided written answers to “Questions for the Record” from several senators. ProPublica , an American non-profit investigative news site, published excerpts from the answers. In the exchange, Mattis emphasized that climate change poses a threat to the Pentagon’s assets and interests abroad, and confirmed the Department of Defense’s commitment to mitigating the consequences of climate change.
Climate change and the Pentagon
The Pentagon has long recognized the security threats the changing climate will bring, and has taken them into consideration when planning operations. In 2016, President Obama commissioned a report on the national security implications of climate change, and ordered federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to fully consider climate change-related impacts on national security in policies and plans.
This report identified possible timelines and pathways for the physical, social, political, and economic effects of climate change on national security. It listed threats to the stability of countries, heightened social and political tensions, adverse effects on food availability, increased risks to human health, negative impacts on investments, and potential climate discontinuities as the principal pathways through which climate change will impact national security. It also found that during the next five years, the main climate-related threat will come from distinct extreme weather events and climate-related stress on currently strained conditions. Additionally, during the next 20 years, the principal threat will arise from disturbances and changes in broader climatic systems, such as sea level rise.
Mattis’ Strategic Focus on Climate Change
Mattis has held this stance on climate change for quite some time. In 2003, Mattis famously stated that the military must be “unleashed from the tether of fuel” – a view he reiterated in his recent written responses. Although he has taken this stance for a variety of reasons, he illustrated the Department of Defense’s commitment to exploring renewable energy, where it makes sense for them. Furthermore, when Mattis was commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, he signed off on Joint Operating Environment, a document that listed climate change as one of the principal security threats the military will face in the next quarter-century.
In his written answers, Mattis expressed his concern for climate change as a driver of instability and alter political dynamics. For example, he stressed that climate-related drought and water shortages are already impacting the stability of areas where US troops are stationed, particularly in the Middle East. He also cited the increased maritime access in the Artic due to the reduction of ice cover, as a key climate related change that will have significant impact on the Unite States’ security situation, as well as the political climate of the North Atlantic.
Mattis described climate change as a broad challenge that will require a “whole-of government” response to address. He reassured the senators that the Department of Defense is prepared to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate. He wrote of the Pentagon’s plans to continue incorporating the impacts of climate change into defense planning and operations. He also wrote that the Pentagon is committed to ensuring that shipyards and bases will continue to function as required, in the face of rising sea levels and drought. Mattis’ written statements signal to other countries that, despite pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the US is still engaged in addressing climate change.
Cover photo by US Secretary of Defense/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Jim Mattis during a visit to the United Arab Emirates earlier this year.
The Syrian civil war has raged for more than six years now. You’ve probably heard the following story linking it to climate change: an intense drought, made more likely thanks to global warming, caused “mass migration” within the country from rural to urban areas, which in turn contributed to the 2011 uprising which then escalated into civil conflict.
This narrative assumes that there is a relationship between drought, migration and conflict. However, the connection is not so clear-cut. Our worry is that putting too much emphasis on the climate overlooks the role of political and socio-economic factors in determining a community’s vulnerability to environmental stress. Conflict is not inevitable in the face of drought.
That’s one conclusion from our work on drought and resource management in Syria. In our research, we broke down the popular “climate war” claim into two parts – the link between drought and migration, and the link between migration and conflict – to see if and how these factors fit together.
We started with the very idea of environmentally induced migration. The problem is that it’s very difficult to determine the actual reasons why people leave home and look for opportunities elsewhere – a changing environment is likely to be only one among several factors and not necessarily the most significant. For instance, having the capital to move is a major factor for migration, so only those who can afford to move in response to drought are able to.
In the case of Syria, there has been no scientifically proven link between reduced rainfall or failed crops, and rural-urban migration. The evidence that has been used to prove the drought-migration link comes from displacement reports published by the Syrian government and UN assessment missions. The two phenomena are claimed to be linked because they coincided in time. Scientifically, however, this is not enough.
The drought which affected Syria has been described as a severe, multi-year drought that lasted between 2006 and 2010. But rainfall levels in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 were close to normal, both in Syria as a whole and in the northeastern “bread basket” region. This suggests that only 2008 was a real drought year.
A drought can be devastating for one community but barely noticed in another. Just look at the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which was affected by the same dry period as Syria but without any mass migration flows at the time. A community’s vulnerability to drought is more important than the drought itself.
Various factors meant Syrian farmers were particularly vulnerable to drought. An overuse of water to nourish thirsty crops such as cotton had left the land dry and degraded. The government had also cancelled subsidies for fuel used to power irrigation pumps and to take produce to market – and it had dismantled a micro-finance network that had served as an income security net. A national drought strategy that had been approved in 2006 was not implemented once the rains dried up.
By simply looking at migration flows past and present, we can see that violent conflict is rare. In fact, migration may actually strengthen social and economic conditions in receiving communities in the developing world. While urban migration does not cause development per se, sustained economic development does not occur without it.
Religious, social and ethnic integration may also improve as contact with one another increases. However, migration can also promote conflict, through increased competition for resources and services, and tensions due to ethnic and demographic changes. The potential for conflict in a given urban space is mitigated by factors such as the destination area’s ability to absorb migrants, the permanency of people’s migration, and whether there is already social and/or political instability.
In the case of Syria, there was a mass exodus of farming families from the worst drought-affected areas in the north of the country (the agricultural bread basket of Syria) to the nearby cities of Damascus, Hama and Aleppo. However, what role this migration played in helping to fuel the uprisings and then the conflict is far from clear.
What this sequence of events highlights is that the conflict is a culmination of several interconnected factors that had been steadily developing over decades. While drought, migration and conflict may all be linked by association, such links are not established facts and, in the case of Syria, they are difficult to gauge.
What can be said with much greater certainty is that economic struggles stemming from drought vulnerability, the loss of subsidies and the loss of agricultural wages did contribute to widespread dissatisfaction with the government. And it was this dissatisfaction which served as a rallying cry to unite people in opposition.
A newly published Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) report completed by a team comprised of researchers from the University of Arizona and Acclimatise assessed climate change impacts and adaptation on Southwestern US Department of Defense (DoD) facilities. The project aimed to:
develop and pilot-test approaches for climate risk assessment;
evaluate climate adaptation best practices in a series of case studies, and
evaluate approaches and needs for climate services to support adaptation planning compatible with DoD decision-making needs and processes.
In a four-year long process the project team interacted with DoD personnel in risk assessment workshops and case-study pilots at four installations in the Southwest, through participatory processes. They conducted interviews and convened workshops with personnel, in order to identify gaps, needs, and opportunities for infusing climate adaptation thinking and practice into DoD operations. These interviews also helped evaluate promising approaches to climate services, that mesh with military culture, leadership, and practice. Current obstacles to adopting climate adaptation measures and possible solutions to overcome these obstacles were also explored.
The research team found that integrating climate change risks into decision-making processes creates active engagement as it focusses on current challenges that can be dealt with now. Furthermore, adopting publicly available data and decision-making tools can help bases with limited resources to undertake climate risk assessments comprehensively. Finally, the study showed that while base management was receptive to climate-related actions, day to-day priorities dominate decisions and resource allocation. This is further complicated by the fact that there is rarely designated funding for climate adaptation, forcing base management to allocate already scarce funds to other competing and iften immediate priorities. Thus, mainstreaming climate into existing priorities could help tackle such budget issues.
Installations are the “front lines” of climate adaptation in the DoD and their emphasis allowed the researchers to develop a unique strategy tuned to the needs and challenges of this organizational level, including (1) assessing data and information needs, (2) assessing Base wide risk, (3) engaging personnel, (4) communicating climate change information, (5) mainstreaming climate change into DoD practice and policy, (6) addressing DoD institutional norms, leadership and partnerships, and (7) providing climate services for DoD installations and supporting DoD climate services capacity. This model shows great promise to speed the incorporation of climate adaptation planning at all levels of the DoD.
Cover photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Chris Drzazgowski/Released – U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Koleton Mitchell, 25th Operational Weather Squadron weather forecaster, participates in a 7-mile-long ruck alongside fellow Airmen at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, one of the bases that participated in this research.
Ever since the change in US federal government at the end of January 2017, there have been several news stories pointing at the fact that the administration seems to have little to no interest in mitigating or adapting to climate change. This, however, is not stopping the US military from pressing ahead with their plans to build resilience against climate risks.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) is globally speaking one of the best prepared military institutions. Climate change has been on the DoD’s priority list for many years: its threat to national security and the threat it poses to the safety of DoD installations.
According to a 2012 study, the DoD’s global real estate is worth US$828 billion. Much of this real estate is built in low lying coastal areas and climate-vulnerable regions. Given these figures, the fact that the Defense Department is interested in protecting its assets from climate risks doesn’t come as a surprise. Additionally, climate risks can be a significant threat to mission readiness, which is of the utmost importance to any military institution.
The Naval Station Norfolk has become somewhat of a poster child for the climate impacts the US Military faces and will face. The station is headquarters of the Atlantic fleet and its facilities flood up to ten times a year. Since the naval station was built during World War I, the sea level there has risen 14.5 inches. By the end of this century it might become completely unusable.
Installations in the Arctic are threatened by thawing permafrost, and for those in the Western USA, the drought has increased the occurrence of wildfires, which last year threatened several DoD installations.
However, sea level rise remains the biggest risk for the Defense Department as it affects oversea installations in the Pacific Ocean as well as stations on US shores. 128 stations, valued at US$100 billion face significant risks from rising oceans.
The bases at Norfolk and Virginia are especially vulnerable because sea level rise there is happening at twice the average global rate and, in addition, the ground is subsiding. The DoD is now working with scientists, state and local officials in Norfolk and Virginia Beach to adapt the region. While some actions have already been implemented, like replacing piers and protecting power lines from flooding, others have not. All the adaptation plans require funding, and that is hard to come by when climate change gets as politicised as right now.
Long-term climate risks are always a hard thing to communicate. However, the Defense environment is ever changing, always adapting to new and very short-term risks, and additionally there is a quick rate of staff turnover. All this and the political landscape complicate long-term planning, especially for climate risks. However, the DoD is very aware of the risk climate change poses for its operations and it continues to figure out ways that will increase the US military’s climate resilience.
One of those efforts is a wide-ranging programme of climate adaptation measures is being implemented to ensure that US defence operations remain climate resilient. Researchers at the University of Arizona with help from Acclimatise have been undertaking work to ensure that DoD managers are integrating climate risk into their operational planning, framing climate change as an issue of national defence and homeland security. Soon, the final reports of this multiyear project will become available and will offer useful guidance.
In this presidential election year we have heard much about some issues, such as immigration and trade, and less about others. For example, climate change was discussed for an estimated 82 seconds in the first presidential debate last week, and for just 37 minutes in all presidential and vice presidential debates since the year 2000.
Many observers think climate change deserves more attention. They might be surprised to learn that U.S. military leaders and defense planners agree. The armed forces have been studying climate change for years from a perspective that rarely is mentioned in the news: as a national security threat. And they agree that it poses serious risks.
I spent 32 years as a meteorologist in the U.S. Navy, where I initiated and led the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. Here is how military planners see this issue: We know that the climate is changing, we know why it’s changing and we understand that change will have large impacts on our national security. Yet as a nation we still only begrudgingly take precautions.
The Obama administration recently announced several actions that create a framework for addressing climate-driven security threats. But much of the hard work lies ahead – assuming that our next president understands the risks and chooses to act on them.
Climate change affects our security in two ways. First, it causes stresses such as water shortages and crop failures, which can exacerbate or inflame existing tensions within or between states. These problems can lead to state failure, uncontrolled migration and ungoverned spaces.
The NIC report emphasizes that the problem is not simply climate change, but the interaction of climate with other large-scale demographic and migration trends; its impacts on food, energy and health; and the stresses it will place on societies, especially fragile ones.
As examples the report cites diverse events, ranging from mass protests and violence triggered by water shortages in Mauritania to the possibility that thawing in the Arctic could threaten Russian oil pipelines in the region. Other studies have identified climate change as a contributing factor to events including the civil war in Syria and the Arab Spring uprisings.
Second, climate change is putting our military bases and associated domestic infrastructure in the United States under growing pressure from rising sea levels, “nuisance flooding,” increasingly destructive storm surges, intense rainfalls and droughts, and indirect impacts from wildfires. All of these trends make it harder to train our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to deploy and fight the “away” game and to keep our forces ready to deploy.
These changes are not hypothetical. Consider Hurricane Matthew: although we cannot directly attribute this storm to climate change, scientists tell us that as climate change worsens, major hurricanes will become more severe. As Matthew moves up the Atlantic coast, the armed forces are evacuating thousands of service members and dependents out of its path, and the Navy is moving ships out to sea. Other units are preparing to deliver hurricane relief to hard-hit areas.
Many of us who work in this field have written and talked about risks like these for years. Along with 24 other retired senior officers, civilian defense officials from Republican and Democratic administrations, and well-respected academics, I recently signed a consensus statement that calls climate change a strategically significant risk to our national security and international stability. We called for “a robust agenda to both prevent and prepare for climate change risks,” and warned that “inaction is not an option.”
The “change” part of climate change is critical: The more ability we have to adapt to and manage changes and the rate of change in our climate, the greater our chances are to avoid catastrophic chaos and instability.
Meeting the challenge
Simultaneously with the NIC report on Sept. 21, the White House released a Presidential Memorandum, or PM, on climate change and national security. This document formally states the administration’s position that climate change impacts national security.
Building on past executive orders and policies, it directs senior climate officials at 20 federal agencies to form a working group on climate change and national security, cochaired by the president’s national security adviser and science adviser. This working group will analyze questions such as which countries and regions are most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the near, medium and long term.
That’s high-level attention! In the words of a senior administration official, the PM “gives permission” for career civil servants and military professionals to work on this challenge, just as they address myriad other security challenges daily.
But we need to do much more. I am a member of the Climate and Security Advisory Group – a voluntary, nonpartisan group of 43 U.S.-based military, national security, homeland security, intelligence and foreign policy experts from a broad range of institutions. We have produced a comprehensive briefing book for the next administration that makes detailed recommendations about how to expand our efforts to address security risks associated with climate change.
Our top-line recommendation is to “mainstream” this issue by ensuring that U.S. leaders consider climate change on an equal basis with more traditional security issues, such as changing demographics, economics, political dynamics and other indicators of instability – as well as with low-probability, high-consequence threats like nuclear proliferation. We also recommend that the next president should designate senior officials in key departments, the intelligence community, the National Security Council and within the Executive Office of the President itself to ensure this intent is carried out.
What’s next? As a retired naval officer, I find myself drawing on the words of American naval heroes like Admiral Chester Nimitz. In 1945, while he was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Nimitz wrote about a devastating storm near the Philippines that had sunk three ships and seriously damaged more than 20 others, killing and injuring hundreds of sailors. He concluded by observing that:
The next president will have a choice to make. One option is to continue down the path that the Obama administration has defined and develop policies, budgets, plans and programs that flesh out the institutional framework now in place. Alternatively, he or she can call climate change a hoax manufactured by foreign governments and ignore the flashing red lights of increasing risk.
The world’s ice caps will not care who is elected or what is said. They will simply continue to melt, as dictated by laws of physics. But Americans will care deeply about our policy response. Our nation’s security is at stake.
And, they calculate that however vigorous the US economy, its growth cannot outpace the projected rising costs of hurricane damage in the decades ahead.
More than half of all weather-related economic losses around the globe are caused by damage due to tropical cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons, and the lessons of new research in Environmental Research Letters journal is that high-income countries may be no better protected than the poorest in this respect.
“So far, historical losses due to tropical cyclones have been found to increase less than linearly with a nation’s affected gross domestic product (GDP),” says Tobias Geiger, climate impacts and vulnerabilities researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), who led the study.
“However, if you analyse losses with respect to per capita income and population growth separately, this reveals a different picture. Our analysis for the United States shows that high income does not protect against hurricane losses.
“As the number and intensity of tropical cyclones is projected to increase under unchecked global warming by the end of the century, average hurricane losses with respect to GDP could triple.”
The bill for hurricanes in the US between 1980 and 2014 is estimated at $400 billion − and that represents half of all meteorologically-induced damage.
Hurricane hazard is a function of sea temperatures: once surface temperatures exceed 26°C, the probabilities grow, and potential intensity grows too. Global warming, of course, increases ocean temperatures, and therefore the hazard.
Once again, this is research that aligns with other studies. Economists and climate scientists separately have calculated the global economic threats associated with global warming and climate change, and quite specifically in the case of coastal flooding of the kind associated with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
And the US space agency NASA has reminded Americans that while the Louisiana’s floods follow unusually heavy rainfall – a total of 686mm in a short period – at least the same quantity fell in the state in March 2016, once again with consequent flooding. Louisiana, buffeted and then flooded by Katrina in 2005, is in the path of hurricanes.
Models of damages
The PIK scientists worked with models that matched a storm’s wind speed with the numbers of people exposed and per capita GDP to reported losses. They considered historic losses, estimated future losses, and looked at statistical models of damages.
They used data about historical hurricane tracks for the eastern US to make the connection between those affected, the average capital income, and the damages that followed. And they did it for thousands of potential future hurricane tracks between now and 2100, while making a range of assumptions about levels of global warming.
“Some people hope that a growing economy will be able to compensate for the damages caused by climate change – that we can outgrow climate change economically instead of mitigating it,” says another of the study’s authors, Anders Levermann, PIK professor of dynamics of the climate system.
“But what if damages grow faster than our economy, what if climate impacts hit faster than we are able to adapt? We find this is the case with hurricane damage in the United States. The hope in economic growth as an answer to climate change is ill-founded.”
Cover photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard (CC by 2.0)
Few things have a more significant impact on the fabric of a nation than war. Protracted conflict is often economically and socially ruinous, costs both lives and livelihoods, and scars the collective psyche of those affected. In recent years much has been written about the relationship between conflict and climate change. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, called the civil war in Darfur “the world’s first climate change conflict”, and more recently, in the UK, Prince Charles linked the war in Syria to climate-driven drought. But peer-reviewed research into the link between climate change and conflict is not conclusive over the extent to which climate change drives violence. So where does the truth lie? Does climate change cause conflict?
The media portray the link between climate and war in simplistic terms. A typical media narrative on the issue might involve: a climate driven extreme event such as drought, followed by resource shortages, followed by migration, leading to increased conflict. But this narrative is floored in several important ways. In an excellent piece investigating the climate influence on the war in Syria, Alex Randall of the Climate and Migration Coalition highlights many of the pitfalls that journalists have fallen into when reporting on the issue.
One thing that the media does seem to get right is that climate change increases stress on resources and creates the conditions that can lead to migration. In this sense, climate change does appear to make the conditions for conflict more likely, in some cases. In the words of the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, climate change acts as “a threat multiplier” increasing the opportunities for tension to arise.
However, a common misrepresentation appears to be the link between large movements of people and conflict. In Syria, the media narrative ran that following prolonged drought people from the countryside moved to evermore crowded cities, and that this population influx increased tensions leading to civil unrest. There is good evidence for the first half of this narrative, however, as Randall explains, the second part of the narrative is not substantiated:
“Many media reports did not elaborate on how or why an influx of people into Syria’s cities might lead to armed violence… The media reports rest on the idea that the presence of large numbers of new people in Syrian cities gave rise to a protracted and violent conflict. But they offer little explanation of the causal mechanism behind this.”
In reality there appears to be little evidence to support the assertion that migration is linked to conflict. In Syria for example, the uprising began in the rural areas, and then the violent reaction of the Assad regime, led to widespread protest across the country including in the cities.
The migration-conflict narrative is problematic as it suggests that large movements of people will move from climatically sensitive areas to less climatically sensitive ones, and that this will lead to violent conflict. The policy implications of this for countries in, for example, Northern Europe might be to implement very strict immigration control and robust boarder defenses, or to stop giving safe haven to refugees.
So the relationship between climate and conflict is more complex that it first appears. Many scientific studies have found a connection, and many others find no causal link. How can this be? Recent research suggests that context is at the heart of the issue.
Studies, such as this one in Brazil [link to pdf] investigating conflict over land in times of restricted rainfall, have found a strong link between climate change and conflict. However, another study, investigating the same type of violence in Kenya, found that years with less rainfall are often followed by more peaceful periods.
Neither of these studies invalidate the other, instead they suggest that climate stresses can lead to conflict or co-operation. What determines the response is the complex social, economic and political conditions. In this respect geography is paramount.
But history may also have a significant bearing on whether climate stresses will lead to conflict. Recently a team of researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that countries that have higher levels of ethnic ‘fractionalization’ – many mixed ethnicities living closely side-by-side – are more likely to suffer conflict in the wake of environmental disasters. Importantly the researchers tied this connection to colonial history, as the Climate and Migration Coalition explains:
“During the 19th and 20th centuries European countries placed arbitrary borders across huge parts of Africa and the Middle East. The perfectly straight borders of many countries are the lasting evidence of this. These borders often split people apart from their linguistic, religious and ethnic communities. The borders placed people from different religions and linguistic groups in newly created administrative areas. As the age of empire ended, these areas became independent nations. This left many ethnic and linguistic minorities seeking independence from the newly independent state they were part. Or re-unification with people they were split from by arbitrary border-drawing of the colonial era. In many cases these struggles for independence or reunification lead to armed conflict.”
The Potsdam Institute researchers explain that violence today is likely to be an extension of the conflict and tensions created over many years since the colonial era. The research does not find that ethnic diversity itself is the cause of conflict. Indeed, ethnic diversity in parts of the world that have not been colonized does not demonstrate the same pattern.
For climate change practitioners working on migration and conflict issues, and governments and policy makers, the important upshot of these combined studies is that climate change impacts may lead to increased risk of conflict in some cases, especially in areas that have been affected by violent conflict in their recent history. However, climate vulnerability alone is not a good predictor of where violence may erupt.