The U.S. military could soon be drawing up disaster-response plans to prepare for global warming-caused crises, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events, according to the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), published on Monday along with President Obama’s defense budget for 2011.
The mention of climate change is a first for the Congress-mandated QDR, released every four years to shape the nation’s defense.
"Although they produce distinct types of challenges, climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked," the QDR authors wrote.
The reference suggests a strong consensus is emerging within the defense community concerning the national security implications of a warming planet. Yet it arrives at a time of considerable challenges for climate advocates in America, with both the U.S. Senate and President Obama appearing to be backing down from a House-approved cap-and-trade law this year.
Some observers say the QDR should spur Senate action.
"With this statement, it is clear that action is needed to prevent climate change in the cause of American safety and security," said Jonathan Murray, campaign manager for the non-profit war veterans group Operation Free Campaign. "The longer we delay, the longer these threats have time to gather."
The review is also seen as a boost for global warming science, as the UN climate change body gets pummeled with fresh allegations of faulty projections concerning future climate effects.
Indeed, the QDR suggests enough scientific evidence exists on coming climate danger to warrant attention from the world’s biggest military.
According to the report, "Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration." But the real fear is that warming will exacerbate the current mix of complex security threats and tax an already overburdened military.
"While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world," the authors wrote.
"In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas."
A beefed up natural disaster force is one of two major climate-related initiatives mentioned in the review.
Speaking to reporters, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy highlighted the Pentagon’s commitment to cut foreign oil consumption and to be a national leader in embracing renewable energy and efficiency.
"DOD’s enormous dependence on energy makes our operations vulnerable to disruptions in energy flows and to fluctuations in prices," Flournoy said.
According to the QDR, the department is already making strides to step up its renewables use and downsize energy demand in part for "operational effectiveness" and in part to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions in support of U.S. climate change initiatives." Domestic military outposts are beginning to switch vehicles from gasoline to electricity and other alternative fuels.
Operation Free Campaign called the review "unprecedented." But the integration of climate change into Pentagon planning did not come out of nowhere.
In the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress charged the Department of Defense with considering the effects of global warming on all of its "facilities, capabilities and missions" and to put them into the next QDR.
The 2006 version, written during the Bush-Rumsfeld years, made no mention of the warming threat.
But already back in 2003, a shift was palpable. The Defense Department commissioned a report, which concluded that climate effects could "potentially destabilize the geopolitical environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints."
Four years later, in an authoritative report by a group of retired admirals and generals working with the Center for Naval Analyses, a D.C.-based military think tank, warned that global warming is a "threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world."
Meanwhile, in 2008, the National Intelligence Council found that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.
Last September, the Central Intelligence Agency opened a Center on Climate Change and National Security to provide support to American lawmakers on the national security impact of climate change.
Still, not everyone is convinced of the connection between climate change and national security.
In an open letter to President Obama in January, retired Admiral James A. Lyons, Jr. said the warming-security link is "driven by unsubstantiated claims" and "tainted by scandal," a reference to the hacked email controversy at the University of East Anglia and to the retraction by the UN science panel over the speed at which Himalayan glaciers are expected to melt to nothing.
"When it comes to the climate change-national security link and the cap-and-trade legislation now being considered by Congress, any confidence in scientific pronouncements that may have existed in 2009 does not exist in 2010," Lyons said.
Lyons urged the president to appoint an expert panel on the matter "to sort out fact from fiction."
‘Lingering Skepticism’ Within Military
"It is fair to say that the Department of Defense now considers climate change to be a legitimate national security concern," wrote the Center for New American Security (CNAS), an independent research organization in Washington, in a report released on climate and the QDR.
But that fact masks the lack of uniformity for climate-readiness among the military services and a "lingering skepticism" from defense professionals, CNAS added.
The branches "were uneven in their input to the QDR process on climate change and vary in their level of attention to this issue," according to the authors.
The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps have not devoted extensive analysis to the threat, CNAS said. The Air Force, too, lags behind. However, the U.S. Navy "has thoroughly integrated climate change into its QDR considerations." For instance, the Navy has said it will halve its use of fossil fuels by 2020 and has plans deploy a new strike group by 2016 that will operate without fossil fuels.
One issue holding back the national security community is a deficit of "actionable" data that can be used to understand exactly where, and when, climate change is likely to force more disaster-relief missions or affect military operations.
This, in turn, prevents specific planning. But the QDR should be a wake-up call for better data, CNAS said.
"If the QDR process indeed marks a shift to more regular and in-depth consideration of climate change in planning and strategy, the Department of Defense’s sustained demand signal for actionable data could drive useful advances in our understanding of this global challenge."
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)