New Study on Climate Change Raises Stakes for U.S. Military

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. military has contingency plans to cope with just about any threat to national security, including climate-related disasters and humanitarian crises. But even the Pentagon is likely to be caught flat-footed when the next wave of climate upheaval is unleashed on the planet, a new study suggests.

Scientists are not able to predict precisely when and where the ravages of climate change will cause widespread damage. But when climate-related changes do occur, they will happen suddenly, thus limiting governments' ability to respond, says a Dec. 3report by the National Research Council.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, U.S. intelligence community and the National Academies funded the research.

Rapid changes in the climate system — including the Earth's atmosphere, land surfaces and oceans — could occur within a few decades or even years, leaving little time for society and ecosystems to adapt, researchers predict.

The military is one of several federal institutions that bear responsibility for dealing with climate-linked disruption. The armed services also have become an international 911 force that is called upon to assist following natural disasters. The Pentagon last year produced its first "DOD Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap" to help the military bring weather-related considerations into routine operations and planning.

Of the 202-page NRC report, titled "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprise," only one page is dedicated to national security. But brevity, in this case, "should not be interpreted as an indication of importance," the study says, citing other reports that have delved into climate-related security issues in greater depth.

"Overall, the links between climate and national security are indirect, involving a complicated web of social and political factors," the NRC notes. Climate effects such as food and water security have the potential to fuel conflicts. Water and food scarcity could cause international humanitarian crises as do epidemics and pandemics. The Pentagon also anticipates future geopolitical tensions resulting from the melting of the polar ice caps.

"These impacts from climate change may present national security challenges through humanitarian crises, disruptive migration events, political instability, and interstate or internal conflict," the study says. These national security crises are "likely to be presented abruptly."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel disclosed this month a “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” which predicts an increased military role there, though not necessarily related to climate issues.

“Projections about future access to and activity in the Arctic may be inaccurate,” the strategy says. “Significant uncertainty remains about the rate and extent of the effects of climate change, including climate variability, in the Arctic.”

The NRC calls for the development of an early warning system that could help society better anticipate sudden changes.

"Evaluating climate changes and impacts in terms of their potential magnitude and the likelihood they will occur will help policymakers and communities make informed decisions about how to prepare for or adapt to them," says James W.C. White, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Even changes in the climate system that happen gradually, over many decades or centuries, can cause abrupt ecological or socio-economic change once a "tipping point" is reached, the report concludes. Relatively slow sea-level rise can affect roads, airports, pipelines or subway systems if a sea wall or levee is breached, and slight increases in ocean acidity or surface temperatures could cross thresholds beyond which many species cannot survive, leading to rapid and irreversible changes in ecosystems that contribute to further extinction, the study says.

"Right now we don’t know what many of these thresholds are," White says. "But with better information, we will be able to anticipate some major changes before they occur and help reduce the potential consequences." If society hopes to anticipate these tipping points, an early warning system for abrupt changes needs to be developed, the report says. It could be built with existing land and space-based sensors.

One example of an abrupt change that would have security implications is the opening of shipping lanes in the Arctic as a result of the retreating sea ice. There are geopolitical ramifications related to possible shipping routes and territorial claims, including potential oil, mineral, and fishing rights, says the report. The Arctic Council, which was formerly a relatively unknown international body, has become the center of vigorous negotiations over some of these issues. “This is a change that is occurring over the course of a couple of decades, well within a generation.”

The Pentagon started drafting a strategic policy for climate change in 2010 with the publication of the Quadrennial Defense Review. The document recognized climate change as a reality for which the military must prepare.

"The effects of climate change on infrastructure will not only be costly to our nation’s economy, they will also make us less secure as a nation," according to the2012 climate security report by the American Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. "The military and government rely on physical infrastructure to protect our nation from outside threats and virtual infrastructure to maintain a strong homeland, both of which are threatened by extreme weather caused by climate change," says the study. The rising costs of coping and recovering from climate-related disasters could sap the United States as a global power, the study contends. "A robust economy is necessary for strong national security because it allows us to invest in the structures that keep people safe.”

Some of the military’s most important bases are at risk of going under water, ASP says. “The nation’s structures are vulnerable to the effects of climate change because they were designed for a climate that is different from the one they will face in the 21st Century.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Energy, Climate Change, Energy Security, Expeditionary Warfare

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