Military Report: Can the U.S. Prepare for Climate Change?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The idea that environmental concerns and national security interests are tied up together is not a new one, but it has been given particular emphasis following a new report from the Department of Defense: The “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.” The report states quite plainly that climate change “poses immediate risks to the U.S. national security,” not simply risks in some theoretical future. This overwhelming report, and previous sentiments of a similar nature, demand one concerning question: Is it possible for our government to properly outline a roadmap, and is it realistic to think we can follow it? The answer is likely no, even pushing aside pessimism and embracing the hard work and careful efforts of an entire government workforce — but more on that later.

In July, David L. Goldwyn of Godwyn Global Strategies LLC told a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations that energy markets and extreme climate’s destabilizing effect could both be concerns. He said the energy market is wrapped up in nations with a high degree of liability; Russia, the Middle East, and so on. Europe’s dependence on Russia and the political tensions in Ukraine serve as an example of how nations may find themselves in difficult situations politically due to energy needs.

“Countries proximate to Russia, including those in Europe, [need to] diversify their sources of supply,” said Goldwyn at the time. He also pointed out that climate change would be “capable of exacerbating poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions,” and that these conditions all increase the likelihood of terrorism and violence. Unfortunately, knowledge of this reality does not mean the United States is capable of mitigating the likely poverty, nor does it mean that Europe has properly diversified their gas supplies, though efforts are being made toward that end.

More recently, the Defense Department has taken things a step further in outlining specifics on what must be done to prepare for effects of climate change in its “roadmap.” It looks at which items pose particular concern for the United States defense and the new demands that will be placed on government forces. The report is extensive, and references back to other regional reports that go into more depth on state specific studies, or that are ongoing in looking into how areas will be affected. It discusses training, the need for infrastructure from which to launch defense and humanitarian efforts, and, amusingly, the need to find out what it is that the government will need. It addressed extreme weather events, the possibility that American forces could be prevented from effective deployment both at home and abroad, and a general report on expected additional stresses.

When one considers something small but of vital importance like HealthCare.gov, it’s difficult to imagine the sort of mass, widespread infrastructure and manpower needs being met with any kind of success, even with years of preparation time. Obama’s signature health care website was not only well funded, but it had immediate and obvious political consequences, and was directly in the spotlight for his career.

Environmental preparation for climate change’s worst effects will be more drawn out and less directly related to the personal consequences for America’s political leaders. Yes, politicians still work toward efforts that are not of immediate value to their career, but the point is that it helps to have a guillotine more directly hanging overhead, as with HealthCare.gov, which was still an enormous embarrassment and failure. Bureaucratic incompetence certainly doesn’t end there, and it’s just one example that casts doubts on the government’s ability to plan, prepare, and effectively implement a plan to handle something as enormous, diverse, and far-reaching as climate change.

One example of just how unpredictable and complex the effects of a changing climate can be was given by climate change expert Marcus D. King from Washington University. He explained to The New York Times that even something like ISIL could be greatly impacted by changes to the environment. “Climate change and water shortages may have triggered the drought that caused farmers to relocate to Syrian cities and triggered situations where youth were more susceptible to joining extremist groups,” said King.

The good news is that officials seem to be taking these effects and the necessary preparations quite seriously, at least judging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s emphasis on climate change at the recent defense summit in Peru. “It’s significant that the secretary is focusing his remarks at the defense ministers’ meeting of the Americas on natural disasters and climate change,” said Sherri W. Goodman, senior vice president of the CNA Corporation, to The New York Times. “His making it a priority among the many other things he has to address — ISIS, Ebola, Russia — is a signal that the administration intends to place a priority on this in international climate change negotiations.”

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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