7 Real Consequences of Climate Change as Told by the Pentagon

Since the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense has declared global climate change a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating the challenges the U.S. military faces at home and abroad. Check out the seven examples below, and then be sure to read the DoD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap—a new Pentagon plan for adapting to and mitigating these serious security issues.

1. More frequent and intense severe weather abroad will require disaster relief efforts, increasing requests for U.S. assistance.

Operation Damayan, Typhoon Haiyan/YolandaDisaster relief efforts are a key way that the U.S. military helps others and builds national credibility abroad. According to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, the DoD already receives one request for humanitarian assistance every two weeks. An increase in the number of these missions—like 5,000 sailors and 80 aircraft providing relief after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or 9,000 patients treated and 3.5 million tons of cargo distributed to the victims of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake—will spread forces and resources thin around the globe.

2. Prolonged droughts here at home will affect base operations, decreasing the readiness of our troops.

Utah wildfiresMillions of Americans have already felt firsthand the effects of longer and more extreme droughts, and the military is no exception. Essential training exercises that involve live ammunition have been suspended for months on end due to fire risk, meaning that troops are not getting the preparation they need. Moreover, U.S. Northern Command has had to redirect personnel and resources to countering wildfires that threaten civilian populations at home.

3.  Scarce resources will threaten to collapse weak governments, strengthening extremist groups.

photo credit- Mohammed Othman (1)Photo Credit: Mohamed Othman

Unfortunately, the governments most likely to be affected by climate change are those least equipped to handle the consequences. Current conflicts in Mali, Yemen, and Somalia, demonstrate that extremist groups can gain a foothold in weak states when they provide basic services to poor populations. This “radical altruism” of groups like the Afghan Taliban explains how destitute populations are willing to tolerate—at least initially—very draconian social agendas in exchange for sanitation, food and clean water, and even a basic framework for the rule of law.

4.  Warming temperatures will increase the range of tropical diseases, spurring more global health crises.

Malaria Clinic (1)At least 4,000 people around the world have already died from the recent Ebola outbreak. However, rising temperatures and changing rain patterns are allowing subtropical diseases like Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus, and Lyme disease to expand beyond their traditional regions, and the World Health Organization estimates that a global temperature increase of just 2 or 3 degrees could lead to several hundred million more people being at risk for Malaria. As the U.S. military is essential for disease-mitigation relief efforts, this will be a substantial burden.

5.  Changing weather patterns will spur migration, sparking increased sectarian conflict and increasing urban poverty.

Protests (1)Changing weather patterns are affecting diverse populations, including coastal residents who want to move inland and rural poor who seek the economic opportunities of city life. In Pakistan, farmers are flocking to cities as their land becomes unusable, while Bangladesh could see as many as 18 million residents displaced by 2050. Climate change has been linked to migration, and the internal movement of large numbers of people will test the infrastructure of cities and the ability of governments to provide economic opportunities for new arrivals.

6.  Rising ocean tides and other climate change consequences will damage military facilities here, costing an already budget-constrained military millions of dollars in adaptation efforts.

Beach StabA 2008 National Intelligence Council report indicated that more than 30 of our military sites will require significant adaptation measures to stave off the effects of rising sea levels alone. Necessary construction so far has included reinforcing foundations, building taller piers, and constructing barriers on land and out at sea. Thankfully, steps are being taken to mitigate this problem; bases are working with community leaders to find comprehensive solutions.


7.  Melting in Polar Regions will open new sea lines of communication (SLOCs), prompting international competition for Arctic resources.

Glacier ship (1)Levels of Arctic Sea ice have been in decline since 1979, with melts coming sooner and freezes not covering as much geographic area as usual.  Russia’s claims of sovereignty over the rapidly expanding Northern Sea Route set the stage for further tension with the United States and European Union given the commercial benefits of a shortened passage. Moreover, melting also opens up more strategic points and passages that the Navy and Coast Guard will be required to patrol in order to protect U.S. shipping interests.

Graham F. West is the Writing and Communications Associate for the Truman National Security Project and the editor of the Doctrine Blog.