American military leaders identify climate change as an “immediate” security threat

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Creative Commons: US Department of Defense, 2014

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Creative Commons: US Department of Defense, 2014

Climate change is already affecting the operations of the United States Department of Defense, and will figure prominently into future military plans, according to a report released by the Pentagon on Monday.

At a conference of defense ministers in Santiago, Chile, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled his department’s plan to change operations to address the changing conditions related to global warming. The report, described as a “climate change adaptation roadmap,” confronts the challenges resulting from rising global temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation, more severe extreme weather events, and rising sea levels.

The report states that these changes will likely lead to food and water shortages, increased numbers of refugees, and political instability in already volatile regions like the Middle East.

Climate change has been indicted for contributing to the social unrest that drove the Syrian civil war. Now, the impacts of climate change on conflict are back in the news as the terrorist group ISIS targets water installations along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to increase their tactical advantage.

For years, the US Department of Defense has officially regarded climate change as a “threat multiplier” that worsens existing conflicts. Upon the launch of the new report, Hagel reiterated this point:

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today—from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.

He continued:

Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters—all place additional burdens on economies, societies and institutions around the world.

Monday’s report reveals an evolution of thinking on climate change within the Department of Defense, with global warming now being regarded as an immediate factor in day-to-day decisions, rather than merely as a future threat.

According to the roadmap, climate change considerations will immediately be factored into purchasing decisions and plans for training exercises and war games.

The report also noted the existing impacts on climate change on military facilities in regions like the Hampton Roads in Virginia, where recurrent tidal flooding has begun to affect bases.

The Center for Climate and Security, a policy group that prominently featurse a board of retired senior military officers, greeted the Pentagon’s report with approval. In a joint statement, the group’s co-directors lauded the Pentagon’s refusal to “kick the can down the road” on climate and urged policymakers to follow the military’s lead on tackling global warming head on.


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