Climate Science Watch attended a November 4 conference on Climate Change, State Resilience and Global Security, held at the Center for Naval Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia. At the conference a group of distinguished national security professionals provided perspective and engaged audience members in a type of “war game” scenario that imagined the roles of political and military leaders in a climate-disrupted future. The approach outlined by national security experts at the conference provided a sharp contrast with the current effort in Congress to enact sweeping climate and energy policy reforms.

Post by Alexa Jay and Rick Piltz

The Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) is a federally funded research and development center for the US Navy and Marine Corps, providing analysis of policy and operational issues to help guide decisions at all levels of government. 

CNA’s 2007 report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, articulated the role of climate change as that of a ‘threat multiplier,’ and has been identified as an influential body of work in this rapidly developing school of thought.   

As in the recent hearing on the Kerry-Boxer climate and clean energy bill before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, policy experts and former military personnel at the CNA conference reiterated that climate change will compound existing security threats and is likely to put increasing strain on US military capability as the demand for international humanitarian relief grows.

Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, USN (Ret.), a member of the CNA Military Advisory Board, noted that the United States faces the possibility of an unacceptably high level of risk from a convergence of threats: finite energy supplies, conflict over water and other resources, and destabilization driven by climate change impacts.

He also said that current US energy policy poses a direct threat to US troops as they continue to enter into harm’s way to protect international fossil fuel supplies and fuel supply lines in conflict zones.
Vice Admiral McGinn said that, for its part, the Department of Defense could act as a technological innovator and an early adopter of adaptive practices and energy-efficient technologies, with a focus on the mission of increasing military effectiveness.

While the nature of the constellation of threats that will be exacerbated by climate change has become increasingly clear, the consideration of the proper response is very much an open and cutting-edge discussion. As an illustration, the audience members were engaged in a version of a war game that imagined the roles of US political and military leaders in a climate-disrupted future.

The game, “The Future of Humanitarian and Disaster Relief under Climate Change: Political, Military, and International Perspectives,” was set in 2040, assumed to be the point at which “the political will and available resources are beginning to fail to meet the international demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster response relief.”

In the 2040 scenario, an incremental rise in climate-related stressors like sea level rise, more intense storms, drought, and desertification over the past thirty years has increased the demand on developed nations for aid and relief services. At the same time, developed nations have increasingly turned their attention inward to focus on the effects of climate change within their own borders. 

Attendees were each assigned a country to collectively represent the international community, and a panel represented US leadership as the White House, the Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the State Department. Within the United States, “the debate is over how much aid to send overseas, compared to how much to allocate to domestic disaster response and mitigation efforts.”

The following questions were posed to the ‘global community’: “What are you going to do regarding development, aid, and disaster relief, to keep the world stable? How are you going to do it? How will you know you have done enough?”

As the panelists spoke in turn, a picture of the pressures that the United States might face in such a scenario emerged: domestic demands to address escalating impacts, calls from the international community to increase funding for development, and pressure on the military to continue international counterinsurgency efforts while also providing humanitarian relief. In this situation, the military is concerned about the strain that these missions will put on its posture of readiness and primary function of safeguarding national security.

The exercise, while abbreviated and adjusted for a public audience, demonstrated the manner in which the military endeavors to address outcomes that, while not inevitable, are known to be possible and even probable, and may not have a current policy solution. Simply put, the military plans for preparedness without waiting for all scientific uncertainties to be resolved and without waiting for worst-case scenarios to come to pass.

It is becoming ever clearer that the risks posed by climate change impacts are getting through to the US military leadership, which has both the mandate and the ability to assess present and future threats to national security; the challenge now is to get US civilian leaders to be proactive as well, to get past denial and delay in dealing with the threat and formulate an effective mitigation and adaptive preparedness strategy. 

This approach outlined by national security experts at the conference provided a sharp contrast with the current effort in Congress to enact sweeping climate and energy policy reforms – an effort that is struggling, even on the majority side, to overcome narrow domestic energy policy agendas and parochial state and district-level concerns that sometimes seem to work at cross-purposes with decision-making based on national interest considerations.

As a thought experiment that attempted to move beyond current political realities, the type of climatic-disruption scenario “war game” played at the CNA conference offered a glimpse of what can be initiated by forward-thinking institutions even in the absence of new legislation.

But it also envisioned a possible future in which current institutions fall short. It raised the question of whether a conventional military force should be tasked with humanitarian response missions. What should national security preparedness look like, beyond a force capable of responding to frequent and widespread humanitarian disasters? 

See our earlier posts:
November 5: “Why Is There No US Climate Policy?”

October 30: Senate testimony on climate change and national security raises questions: Whose security?

September 29: Climate Security Index: Global climate disruption seen as a US national security problem