United States Army War College Report:
Initial findings of the study focus on changes to the physical environment and the human response to those changes. Sea level rise, changes in water and food security, and more frequent extreme weather events are likely to re-sult in the migration of large segments of the population. Rising seas will displace tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, creating massive, enduring instability. This migration will be most pronounced in those regions where climate vulnerability is exacerbated by weak institutions and governance and underdeveloped civil society. Recent history has shown that mass human migrations can result in increased propensity for conflict and turmoil as new populations intermingle with and compete against established populations. More frequent extreme weather events will also increase demand for military humanitarian assistance
Salt water intrusion into coastal areas and changing weather patterns will also compromise or eliminate fresh water supplies in many parts of the world. Additionally, warmer weather increases hydration requirements. This means that in expeditionary warfare, the Army will need to supply itself with more water. This significant logistical burden will be exacerbated on a future battlefield that requires constant movement due to the ubiquity of adversarial sensors and their deep strike capabilities.
A warming trend will also increase the range of insects that are vectors of infectious tropical diseases. This, coupled with large scale human migration from tropical nations, will increase the spread of infectious disease. The Army has tremendous logistical capabilities, unique in the world, in working in austere or unsafe environments. In the event of a significant infectious disease outbreak (domestic or international), the Army is likely to be called upon to assist in the response and containment.
Arctic ice will continue to melt in a warming climate. These Arctic changes present both challenges and opportunities. The decrease in Arctic sea ice and associated sea level rise will bring conflicting claims to newly-accessible natural resources. It will also introduce a new theater of direct military contact between an increasingly belligerent Russia and other Arctic nations, including the U.S. Yet the opening of the Arctic will also increase commercial opportunities. Whether due to increased commercial shipping traffic or expanded opportunities for hydrocarbon extraction, increased economic activity will drive a requirement for increased military expenditures specific to that region. In short, competition will increase. The increased likelihood of more intense and longer duration drought in some areas, accompanied by greater atmospheric heating, will put an increased strain on the aging U.S. power grid and further spur large scale human migration elsewhere. Power generation in U.S. hydroelectric and nuclear facilities will be affected. This dual attack on both supply and demand could create more frequent, widespread and enduring power grid failures, handicapping the U.S. economy.
In addition to the changing environmental conditions that will contribute to a changing security environment, climate change will likely also result in social, political, and market pressures that may profoundly affect the Army’s (and DoD’s) activities. Studies indicate that global society, including in the U.S., increasingly views climate change as a grave threat to security. As the electorate becomes more concerned about climate change, it follows that elected officials will, as well. This may result in significant restrictions on military activities (in peacetime) that produce carbon emissions. In concert with these changes, consumer demands will drive market adaptation. Businesses will focus on more environmentally sound products and practices to meet demand. The DoD does not currently possess an environmentally conscious mindset. Political and social pressure will eventually force the military to mitigate its environmental impact in both training and wartime. Implementation of these changes will be costly in effort, time and money. This is likely to occur just as the DoD is adjusting to changes in the security environment previously highlighted.
In light of these findings, the military must consider changes in doctrine, organization, equipping, and training to anticipate changing environmental requirements. Greater inter-governmental and inter-organizational cooperation, mandated through formal framework agreements, will allow the DoD to anticipate those areas where future conflict is more likely to occur and to implement a campaign-plan-like approach to proactively prepare for likely conflict and mitigate the impacts of mass migration. Focused research and early funding of anticipated future equipment and requirements will spread the cost of adaptation across multiple budget cycles, diminish the “sticker shock” and impacts to overall spending. Finally, the DoD must begin now to promulgate a culture of environmental stewardship across the force. Lagging behind public and political demands for energy efficiency and minimal environmental footprint will significantly hamstring the Department’s efforts to face national security challenges. The Department will struggle to maintain its positive public image and that will impact the military’s ability to receive the required funding to face the growing number of security challenges.
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“According to a new U.S. Army report, Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse. This could all happen over the next two decades, the report notes. The senior US government officials who wrote the report are from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA. The study called on the Pentagon to urgently prepare for the possibility that domestic power, water, and food systems might collapse due to the impacts of climate change as we near mid-century. The report was commissioned by General Mark Milley, Trump’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the highest-ranking military officer in the country (the report also puts him at odds with Trump, who does not take climate change seriously.)”
Hurricanes, floods, and wildfires aside, climate change is delivering another threat: a remaking of geopolitics that stands to empower some of America’s adversaries and rivals.
As Arctic ice melts, Russia stands to gain access to oil and gas fields historically locked beneath northern ice — and is building up capability to launch cruise missiles from newly navigable waters to threaten America’s coastlines.
As polar seaways open up, China is eyeing a new “Polar Silk Road” — shorter shipping routes that could cut weeks off of shipping times from Asia to Europe.
And as drought drives more farmers and herders off their lands, extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East are finding fresh recruits.
These are just some of the ways climate change stands to reshape the power dynamics between nations that emerged from interviews for POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast.
Climate change is “making all of our challenges — whether it’s
- weapons of mass destruction,
- violent extremism or
- great power competition between China and Russia —
that much more challenging,” said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense who led studies of climate impacts on national security for the Center for Naval Analyses.
Some of the biggest power shifts are around the Arctic, which Goodman called “ground zero for the nexus of national security and climate change. In our lifetime, a whole new ocean has opened up because with climate change the sea ice is retreating, the oceans are warming and the permafrost is collapsing.”
A global quest for resources is already underway in the Arctic, said Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Polar Institute. “There are thought to be vast stores of fossil fuels, oil and gas and minerals across the Arctic that have not yet been tapped. Russia is doing so today across its vast Arctic coastline with the help of China,” she said.
Russia is vying for control of Arctic seaways and has built some 40 icebreakers — ships that can channel through ice. “Russia envisions under Putin a northern sea route that is essentially a toll road that requires Russian Arctic escorts in the form of icebreakers or other patrol boats, escorting not only the Chinese but others who want to ship across the Arctic,” she said. By contrast, the U.S. has only two icebreakers, she said.
Meanwhile, China, which is not a polar country, has launched aggressive Arctic diplomacy and gained non-voting observer status for itself at the Arctic Council, the international forum that addresses policy in the Arctic. Last year, China issued its first arctic policy.
“It envisions a Polar Silk Road that stretches from Shanghai across potentially to Hamburg and Reykjavik and parts of Europe across Russia’s vast northern sea route hugging the Russian coastline and both exploiting the energy resources there, potential transport opportunities, shipping, research,” Goodman said.
President Donald Trump’s interest in buying Greenland was driven in part by resources newly available because of melting ice. The Danish government quickly rebuffed the idea, but the incident could be seen as an acknowledgment of climate change from a leader who has derided global warming as a hoax.
Climate change poses additional security consequences. U.S. military bases at home and abroad have already been strained by destructive hurricanes and flooding that have cost billions of dollars to repair — and extreme weather has stretched thin the disaster response capabilities of the military. When hurricanes hit Florida and Puerto Rico and the East Coast of the United States in 2017 and 2018, the military had to slow the flow of forces to Afghanistan in order to be able to provide relief at home. Meanwhile, troops have to operate in higher temperatures across Asia and the Middle East, where temperatures now regularly are over 100 degrees and face a broader array of infectious diseases.
Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base incurred billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018 when winds tore through the roofs of hangars and destroyed buildings. Congress has in recent years directed the Department of Defense to address the climate resilience of military bases and climate risks to operating forces.
“The Department of Defense is beginning to integrate these risks into its strategy plans and plans,” Goodman said.
Another geopolitical threat is migration — whether from low-lying island states that stand to lose fresh water drinking supply or coastal areas susceptible to typhoons. Prolonged drought is believed to contribute to conflicts in the Middle East.
“We know that in Syria the prolonged drought that preceded the civil unrest there was a contributing factor to that unrest, which became instability, which led to the violent extremism, which has become the deadliest civil war in modern times,” she said.
Elsewhere, drought-prone countries are buying up land to grow water-intensive crops in what is called the “virtual water” trade. For example, China has been buying agricultural land in the U.S. and Europe to harvest water-intensive crops such as alfalfa.
Simon Dalby, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, told the podcast that the geopolitical consequences can be difficult to predict. He cited the impacts of a 2010 drought in Russia which led the Kremlin to limit wheat exports, setting off a chain reaction.
“International markets panicked. The price went up quickly — and it is indeed suggested that in fact part of the Arab Spring was partly a response to those price fluctuations. So political disturbances across the Middle East might indeed have been related to the drought in Russia, which was probably at least partly caused by climate fluctuations. So this is where we see how dramatically the global economy and the ecology is interconnected,” he said.
The world will need emergency stockpiles of food and disaster relief aid, he said.
And, he noted, while warming may open up certain regions to new agriculture, unpredictable rainfall and flooding can wreak havoc on crops. “This is much trickier than simply saying, ‘Oh because it’s warmer, Russia will do better.’ It’s not that simple,” he said.
Climate change is transforming agriculture itself.
Increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ramps up photosynthesis and makes crops grow more quickly. But the phenomenon has been shown to reduce nutrient density in some crops, like rice. Researchers have begun studying how many people might be at risk for iron or zinc deficiency as a result.
Like governments, businesses are studying how to address long-term risks to their business models, said Gary Litman, vice president for global initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“We definitely need to prepare, to adjust, to adapt to climate change to mitigate the impact of the industry on climate,” he said. But he added that it’s part of a broader pressure on companies to address long-term environmental sustainability and compete for increasingly scarce resources. “We’re dealing with finite resources. There’s not going to be more cobalt on this planet. There is not going to be new soil on this planet. There is not going to be a new oxygen on this planet,” he said.
He noted that advanced technologies, such as batteries, require rare metals. “You cannot address the climate issue — you cannot prepare, for example, for the rise of the oceans — if you don’t invest in new construction materials. How do you build the dam? If you use the current resources, you’ll run out of gravel before you build anything. If you don’t have access to reliable supply of cobalt, you won’t be able to switch to e-mobility,” he said.