August 18, 2020

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Leveraging National Security to Combat Climate Change - Nicole Brugato

Leveraging National Security to Combat Climate Change

Nicole Brugato - LLM student 

In the United States, climate change has become highly politicized, resulting in our focus being on the debate over political approaches to the problem rather than policy solutions. Our current political culture denies science and has derailed decades of environmental regulation. Although climate change is front of mind for many people, the camps remain split between those that reject mainstream climate science and science environmentalists. In order to bring climate change not only to the forefront of a political debate but also to the forefront of policy and decision making, a common ground needs to be established. This could be accomplished by considering climate change a conversation that must be made part of national security.

National security may be the tool to validate climate change as the ‘super wicked’1 problem we know it to be. In 1990, the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence requested the intelligence community assess the potential impacts of climate change on national security. That same year, a paper prepared at the U.S. Navy War College stated, “Naval operations in the coming half century may be drastically affected by the impact of global climate change…resources of both mind and money must be committed to the problem,”2 Since that time, the Department of Defense has made decisive efforts to plan and prepare for the impacts of climate change on military infrastructure, operational readiness, and member well-being. It is time for the discussion about climate change to not simply focus on environmental concerns but also on national security. This may bring the attention and resources necessary to change minds and the earth’s future.

DoD Policies and Initiatives

The intersection of climate change and national security may serve to undermine the security of our nation; from reducing the environmental footprint of the Department of Defense (DoD) to political instability in underdeveloped and developing countries, competition for emerging sea lanes in the Arctic, U.S. dependence on foreign fuels, and the impacts on catastrophic weather events on foreign and domestic military bases. DoD defines climate change as variations in average weather conditions that persist over multiple decades or longer that encompass increases and decreases in temperature, shifts in precipitation, and changing risk of severe weather events. National security is a collective term encompassing both national defense and foreign relations of the United States.3

On March 5, 2020, the DoD announced its fiscal year 2020 Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) new start project selections. A little late considering the fiscal year began on October 1, 2019, but all together 134 projects addressing issues from improved energy efficiencies to wildfire management.4 If the DoD was a country it would be the 55th largest polluter. Compared to the U.S. position at number 2, that does not seem so bad. SERDP and ESTCP projects seek to help the DoD reduce its contributions to climate change by reducing emissions and provide safer clean-up of brownfield sites. The DoD is also investing in renewable energy, including solar power and biofuels and seeks to decrease the military’s dependence on oil. DoD expects to generate 18 percent of on-base electricity from renewables, an increase of almost 9 percent over 2010.5 Additionally, since 2004 the DoD has reduced annual emissions from a peak of 85 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to 59 million metric tons in 2017.6

The DoD energy usage is at such a high level, the military may never be truly self-sufficient. In response, the DoD now aims to establish net-zero energy consumption on military posts and has set many military bases to serve as pilot projects. To achieve net-zero installations, energy consumed will be energy produced. At Marine Corps Logistics Base (MCLB) in Barstow, California, wind turbines provide renewable energy and have helped minimize demand.7 MCLB is already at thirty-four percent net-zero and expects to be at fifty percent net-zero by spring 2021. The success of this project demonstrates the need for policy and lawmakers to test other federal agencies as well as the private sector to achieve net-zero levels through green construction, telework, recycling, and other programs supporting renewable energy.

These projects demonstrate the military’s willingness to make policy that promotes climate change. The added benefit is these projects bring climate change as a means to national security into mainstream conversations. If the DoD can reduce its environmental footprint, other agencies can follow DoD’s example and consider options to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, by adopting developments in technology, initially proposed for military use, to implement climate change policies.

People are divided by climate change and they are divided by the need for war, but they are almost always supportive of protecting our country. As recently as February 26, 2020, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Budget. DoD Secretary Mark Esper testified that one of the biggest challenges the Army faces is desertification out west. Secretary Esper went so far as to say “I know we face a challenge in Norfolk with rising tides” but not so much as to affect our military readiness. He went on to say that we (the U.S.) could make some investments today to mitigate the risk “where it’s appropriate where we can make a difference”.8

Secretary Esper’s comments are weak and ignore a collection of data that clearly demonstrates the Norfolk Naval Base faces significant impairment in the future without mitigation today. Engineers use historic environmental characteristics to plan, construct, and maintain naval facilities and supporting infrastructure. When planning and constructing military posts, storm environments are taken into consideration; however, when the environment is altered, the original designs might be rendered incompetent for the new conditions.9

In 2020, Norfolk is sinking. The sea level has risen more than 6 inches since 1992, twice the global average. Realizing this, the military is attempting to reduce its vulnerability by building seawalls and relocating electronic equipment at coastal basis to higher elevations.10 Additionally, a recent study of the flood patterns of the Ohio River Valley produced updated Intensity, Duration, Frequency (IFD) curves that will enable future buildings to be designed to meet future conditions.11 Unfortunately, when a military facility is crippled by climate disasters, such as what was experienced at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska when the Missouri River flooded in March 2019, the consequences go beyond damage to physical structures. The operational readiness of the supported units is compromised.

As the military looks at changing the way it designs, constructs, and locates infrastructure, the civilian side could take a lesson. In 2014, the DoD issued a memorandum emphasizing Executive Order 11988, issued in May 1977, requiring federal agencies to ‘carefully consider floodplain area use’.12 The primary takeaway from the memo, minimize construction in 100-year floodplains. In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed DoD to transition “from 100-year floodplain data to a forward-looking predictive model that takes into account the impacts of sea-level rise”.13

Lawmakers are already considering the impacts of climate change on national security, but how the military approaches climate change can be applied to other areas of law has yet to be realized. At the same time the DoD is engaging and enforcing the military to avoid floodplains, the National Flood Insurance Program encourages commercial and residential construction in floodplains by providing flood insurance subsidies. Having worked in real estate law, the general public is not dissuaded from buying or building in a flood zone simply because they are required to get flood insurance. Much like the military is recognizing the diminished operational readiness, lawmakers should look at the loss of livelihoods, homes, families, and economies. Law and policy makers could encourage the protection of the floodplain ecosystems as well as the safety and security of homeowners, by reducing insurance subsidies and providing housing relocation subsidies to assist people in moving out of flood zones.

Members of the armed forces suffer not only when infrastructure is destroyed but also as result of increased temperatures. Extreme heat poses health risks to soldiers carrying heavy loads and impacts the safe operation of helicopters and other mechanical equipment. Wildfires force evacuations of military bases, disrupting not only military operations but affecting the home and family life of military members, resulting in culminating stressors. Public support for military troops varies somewhere between 69 percent and 83 percent. With some effort, demonstrating the negative effects of climate change on soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, the conversation of climate change should be had by our nations’ leaders. Americans respect and trust the military and are more likely to support efforts to protect members if they see it as in their best interest.

The vulnerability of military infrastructure serves to highlight the vulnerability of civilian infrastructure and leads to concerns of military readiness and expenses incurred when the military is called to assist in a weather-related emergency. As extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, the likelihood of DoD involvement increases. In response to Hurricane Katrina, close to 50,000 members of the National Guard and 20,000 active duty members were called to assist with humanitarian relief, search and rescue, and reconstruction at a cost estimate of $200 billion. Whether the military can carry out its fundamental mission of defending the nation and protecting the homeland while incapacitated by a flood or fire is a question raised by the DoD.

Lawmakers and the DoD know the strain put on the military when it is called to fight wildfires, pass out food and water, and operate COVID-19 test sites. While aiding in disaster relief is part of the National Guard’s mission, the frequency to which this happens due to climate change is growing. When members of the National Guard are fighting fires, they are not teaching school, bagging groceries, or delivering mail. Civilian employers and the economy can suffer in extreme situations. Active duty members are unable to train for combat operations and maintain military readiness levels. Developing policies that improve climate change could reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of weather-related events, thus reserving the active duty military for combat operations and maintaining economies.

Extreme Temperatures and Destabilization


There is a reason weather is the second item addressed in military operation orders. It is impossible to fight a war in the midst of a sand storm or while suffering from heat stroke. In the near future it will be near impossible for people to operate in the open for most of the year in Southwest Asia due to extreme heat and humidity. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that “climate change is real. I think it is probably going to result in destabilization, with resource depletion, water and things like that. You’re gonna see things like increases in diseases. There are a lot of second and third order effects. And does it impact on U.S. national security? Yes it does.”14 General Milley is absolutely correct that climate change results in instability.

Heat, rising sea levels, water shortages have proven to cause the destabilization of developing and underdeveloped countries. Climate change serves as a ‘threat multiplier’. When combined with other forces, it has the potential to accelerate conflict. Climate extremes are most likely to lead to disaster in countries that depend highly on agriculture, have a history of conflict, and discriminatory politics.15 As one of the hottest and most desolate places on the earth, Djibouti sits in one of the most militarily strategic locations on the Bab el-Mandeb Straight on the Horn of Africa. Eighteen miles from Yemen, it serves as a doorway to the Red Sea and Europe from much of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Once a developing country seeking to improve itself through agriculture and tourism, Djibouti is now incredibly hot and deprived of water. Rising sea levels of .65 inches since 1990 have caused salt contamination of water sources. The Ambouli River, which was the life blood of the country’s agricultural industry, is gone. Two or three times a year, during monsoon season, runoff causes the river to flow for a few days, contaminated by the garbage and waste that lines the dry riverbed. People and animals rush to the water to hydrate, clean, recreate, and potentially spread disease.

Nothing grows in Djibouti. When the river dried up, the loss of agriculture left much of the local nationals unemployed and poor. Most Djiboutien men are addicted to the drug khat. The khat placates the locals but the drug trade has given rise to increased piracy and contributes to the radicalization of locals disgruntled with of foreign cultures taking advantage of the country’s location but offering little in the way of water and jobs. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have taken advantage of the destitute, reducing the influence of the U.S. military and causing tensions between allied countries.

Pakistan and Syria are also experiencing increased destabilization due to climate change. Like Djibouti both are experiencing migration due to water shortages, increased poverty and famine. The drought in Syria, from 2006 to 2011 is blamed for increasing social tensions that led to the Syrian revolution and civil war. Migrants driven from their land by water shortages in Pakistan moved to Karachi resulting in increased ethnic violence, weakening the country’s industry and finances.16 Climate change will amplify the challenges faced by countries already feeling destabilization factors. The poorest countries will sustain the worst effects of climate change. The consequences will be more extreme and already fragile governments will be hard pressed to manage violence and feed their people.

The U.S. has a significant interest in maintaining peace in destabilized countries as a means of controlling mass migration as well as immigration into the U.S. Although not directly related to migration, the involvement of the U.S. in international climate policy provides promise of humanitarian relief and acceptance of its responsibility to reduce or eliminate global greenhouse gas emissions. As such, it is imperative that U.S. lawmakers demand the U.S. remain a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement. The U.S. produces 14.3% of the global carbon dioxide emissions, second only to China. The U.S. withdraw from the Paris Agreement along with the current untoward view of immigration exposes the country to militaristic and economic threats. In response to President Trump’s withdraw from the Paris Agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “The EU would be ‘mad’ to do a trade deal with any country that refuses to implement the Paris Agreement.” Further, Macron called for higher taxes on imports from ‘laggard’ countries.17

Dependence on Fossil Fuels

The U.S. interest in maintaining peace in destabilized countries is also directly related to its unhealthy dependence on foreign oil. Military leaders recognize that the U.S. must reduce its reliance on foreign sources of fossil energy. The military needs a huge amount of energy, most in the form of fossil fuel. DoD is a significant consumer of fossil fuel energy and is the largest institutional user of petroleum in the world. The U.S. can encourage national security by decreasing dependence on oil and oil-rich states, thus allowing it to rethink its position in the world, as a consumer and defender.

Improving national security by reducing reliance on foreign fuel is a difficult proposition. For the last several years, the National Security Strategy has focused on protecting American interest in the Middle East, particularly oil interest in the Persian Gulf. Because of this, the military is often in the ironic position of using an extensive amount of oil to run operations to protect the countries producing the oil used. The demand for oil requires a greater presence of U.S. forces in places like the Persian Gulf and as a result, the U.S. military is more vulnerable to attack.

The DoD has realized for some time that protecting foreign oil assets puts the U.S. military at risk, yet lawmakers continue to allow the import of foreign oil. Interestingly, in September 2019, the U.S. exported 140,000 more barrels per day than it imported, while producing 12.8 million barrels per day. This does not meet the consumption needs of the U.S., which reached 20.46 million barrels per day in 2019, but it does raise the question of why is the U.S. exporting oil?18 Lawmakers are in a position to make policy to end the importation of foreign oil. Encouraging renewable energy sources to bring the U.S. oil consumption to within levels that can be supported by its own production would not only reduce dependence on foreign oil but could allow the U.S. to relieve its role as babysitter in Southwest Asia.

Through policy directives and the implementation of SERDP and ECTSP projects, the DoD is developing methods to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign fuel and subsequently its vulnerability to attack. The ECTSP projects for 2020 include a significant focus on the development and expansion of microgrid, which provides flexibility for a small group of electrical networks to continue operating in the event the national grid is compromised. Military installations are dependent on the commercial power grid. This puts the military at a critical level of risk in the event of an extended outage. Not only does the military face cyber threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, the grid is particularly vulnerable to weather-related events. Most installations have backup generators that run on diesel fuel, but fuel pumps need electricity to operate, thus continued operations are only as good as the on-hand fuel supply. Using tax incentives and low interest loans or subsidies could incentivize the otherwise complacent companies and local authorities that operate electric utilities to improve structures and secure electric grids.

Emerging Security Risks

To reduce its risks, the U.S. altered its most recent national security strategy to make domestic operations its number one priority ahead of protecting interests overseas. Two of the projects selected by ECTSP for development in 2020 relate to the development and militarization of the Arctic. Melting sea ice has opened new shipping lanes which Russia and China are quickly exploiting to their advantage. Russia also continues to increase its presence in the Arctic. It is extracting resources and currently has a strong hold that gives it power to regulate shipping as well as territory. The U.S. cannot sit idly by as Alaska is an Arctic state and it must remain present in order to influence relations in the Arctic region. The U.S. must also remain economically competitive, particularly with China who is aggressively pursuing activities and interests in the Arctic.

Another way in which the U.S. is seeking to protect its interest in the Arctic is to reduce and even reverse the loss of sea ice. This goes back to the DoD’s effort to reduce its environmental footprint, by reducing its energy usage and emissions. This requires thinking long-term and asking what policies will survive changes in administrations. It also requires considering what are the risks associated with extraction of fossil fuel and whether the risks are worth the gain. The U.S. must also consider ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas as it is the only international governing instrument that covers the Arctic.19

Climate change has been a part of the military discussion since the 1980s. In August 1991, climate change was officially included in President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Strategy. In July 2018, a bipartisan letter was delivered to then Secretary of Defense James Mattis calling on him to preserve climate planning in national security plans. The letter cited key differences from a draft report issued in 2016 including the removal of “multiple references to the threat of climate impacts, including sea level rise, posed to military sites and bases around the world”.20

The National Emergency Question

When President Trump declared a national emergency to fund the border wall, it opened the possibility of declaring a national emergency on climate change. The border wall declaration is succinctly military and will be constructed in some of the most arid land in the U.S., locations military members are currently mobilized to protect. Since the inception of the National Emergencies Act in 1976, there have been two national emergencies in the category of public health; H1N1in 2009 and COVID-19 in 2020. It could be argued that climate change is a national emergency both of public health and military significance. Climate change causes heat related sickness, birth defects and death and it is leaving our nation vulnerable to attack. The U.S. military can reduce the risks associated with climate change and the subsequent security threats and this can be amplified if law and policy makers implement similar policies for the federal government and the private sector.

Climate change has reached a tipping point with regard to national security in the U.S. Countries around the world have declared climate emergencies. In June 2019, New York City became the world’s largest city to declare a climate emergency, yet the United States remains a hold out. The current administration cannot be relied upon to take appropriate measures to protect what remains of effective climate change prevention policy and adopt solid methods to prevent future degradation. The military are experts at planning. The DoD can be depended upon to protect national interest and enforce national security, through planning and preparation. Lawmakers and policymakers can take lessons from the DoD playbook.


  1. Lazarus, Richard, Super wicked problems and climate change: Restraining the present to liberate the future, Cornell Law Review, 2009.

  2. Global Climate Change: Implications for the United States Navy, March 1990.

  3. Joint Publication 1-02: Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, November 2010.


  5. Klare, Michael, A military perspective on climate change could bridge the gap between believers and doubters, The Conversation, February 18, 2020.

  6. Crawford, Neta, POV: Global Warming is Now a National Security Concern, July 8, 2019

  7. Net Zero energy use: The future of DoD, Defense Visual Information Distribution Services

  8. Kodack, Marc, U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: Climate Change Impacts National Security, March 5, 2020.

  9. Global Climate Change: Implications for the United States Navy, March 1990.

  10. Kusnetz, Nicholas, Norfolk wants to Remake itself as sea levels rises, but who will be left behind, Inside Climate News, May 21, 2018.

  11. Cho, Renee, What the U.S. Military is doing about climate change, September 20, 2017.

  12. Department of Defense Memorandum, Subject: Floodplain Management on Department of Defense Installations, February 11, 2014.

  13. Schwarber, Adria, Congress Pressing DoD to Prepare for Climate Change, June 19, 2019.

  14. Kodack, Marc, U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: Climate Change Impacts National Security, March 5, 2020.

  15. Busby, Joshua and von Uexkull, Nina, Climate Shocks and Humanitarian Crises; Which Countries Are Most at Risk?, November 29, 2018.

  16. Lieven, Anatol, The Only Force That Can Beat Climate Change is the U.S. Army, January 9, 2018.

  17. Darby, Megan, Climate Weekly: Macron weaponizes trade in defence of Paris Agreement, March 23, 2018.

  18. Cohen, Ariel, Making History: U.S. Exports More Petroleum Than It Imports In September and October, November 26, 2019.

  19. Allen, Thad W and Masters Jonathan, The Arctic is Critical to U.S. National Security, March 22, 2017.

  20. Crunden, E.A., Altered Pentagon climate change reports spurs bipartisan action from lawmakers, July 24, 2018.