Climate change is a military problem for the United States
It also increases demands on scarce naval resources, as it brings more unpredictable and highly destructive storms. As a naval commander, I participated in many humanitarian relief efforts in response to natural disasters, including massive hurricanes in the southeastern United States and the Caribbean, wildfires in the western United States , tsunamis in the Pacific and storms in Central America. These disasters are becoming more and more frequent.
At the same time, climate change poses a new challenge to national security by expanding the geography of the oceans. The Arctic (or the Far North as our Canadian friends more eloquently call it) has been largely frozen for most of the year throughout recorded history. Now the ice is breaking up, shipping lanes are open for much of the year, and rich hydrocarbon deposits are becoming accessible. Thus, the Arctic is becoming a broader site of great power competition between Russia and NATO countries, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway, and soon perhaps Sweden and Finland.
Climate change is also increasing tensions between the developed world and developing countries in Latin America, Africa and South Asia by creating drought conditions in already fragile agrarian societies.
“Climate change is one of the most destabilizing forces of our time, exacerbating other national security challenges and posing serious preparedness challenges,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said. Both the Navy and Army recently released thoughtful white papers on the subject, outlining the issues ahead.
What we need most, however, are concrete ideas to deal with it.
Above all, the Ministry of Defense must reduce its own carbon footprint. It must switch from hydrocarbons to renewable energy sources for daily transport operations; harden its facilities, particularly on the coast, to withstand violent storms, erosion and rising sea levels; and increase its use of recycled products while reducing the use of plastics. As the largest global organization in the world, these measures alone would have a measurable impact on reducing emissions.
A second urgent step is to apply the considerable research and development capacity of the Ministry of Defense to climate challenges. To manage its emerging responsibilities in the Arctic, for example, the Pentagon must develop hardened seagoing vessels (cruisers and destroyers, for example) capable of surveillance and combat operations in the North; train land and air forces for the harsh conditions of the Arctic littoral; consider a significant increase in ice-breaking ships, some of which are nuclear-powered; and set up logistics systems adapted to the region.
To deal not only with the opening of the Arctic, but also with rising sea levels, severe weather, and drought-induced humanitarian crises, the DOD needs an environmental think tank. dedicated to generating ideas for such things as new military nuclear energy systems, storm-resistant materials, pop-up housing and easily transportable food stocks. All of these should be designed to be moved globally through military air and naval capabilities.
The US national security establishment must also cultivate greater international cooperation on climate challenges. The U.S. Coast Guard is uniquely positioned to interact with other navies on fisheries law enforcement, control of pollution and dumping activities, and disposal of plastics.
The Department of Defense should also work with other US agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (home to the Coast Guard) to respond to domestic and international natural disasters. The Departments of State and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency all have strong environmental programs that could be synchronized with DOD efforts. A joint inter-agency task force exists for the fight against narcotics. Why not create one to work collectively on climate-related issues?
As governments and private corporations devote more energy and attention to climate protection, America’s national security establishment must also grapple with what could be the threat of the century.
More other Bloomberg Opinion writers:
• Heat waves, wheat and the Chapati crisis in India: Andy Mukherjee
• Saving the planet is more important than saving the birds: Tyler Cowen
• On the way to the beach? Enjoy it while it lasts: Francis Wilkinson
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired Admiral of the United States Navy, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice president of global affairs for the Carlyle Group. He is the most recent author of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision”.
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