Climate Change and National Security

After numerous debates, town halls, and interviews this presidential cycle, one major national security threat is still going all but completely unanswered: climate change. While the problem receives a cursory mention on occasion from the Democratic field, it is essentially absent from Republican discussions. Neither side is offering much in the way of in depth discourse or solutions, perhaps because long term threats don’t poll as intensely as some others. But the Pentagon doesn’t have the luxury of denial for political purposes.

Our nation’s military leaders have long since decided that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” because it makes the work that our men and women in uniform do around the world more difficult. When more frequent and severe storms devastate other countries, the U.S. military is there to offer humanitarian aid. When droughts and resource shortages destabilize already fragile states, the U.S. military is often involved in stabilization efforts. And when mass migration spurs rapid urbanization and economic displacement that benefits extremist groups, the U.S. military frequently ends up countering the threat.

These effects don’t just happen far from home, either. Military bases on the coast face serious upgrade costs to cope with rising sea levels, and severe weather decreases resilience by interrupting training programs across the nation. And while extreme heat waves can be inconvenient when it overtaxes your A/C at home, it can be downright deadly to our people in the field who rely on electronic support from home from remotely-operated unmanned aerial vehicles.

Perhaps the most troublesome thing about the whole situation, however, is that we’re consciously choosing to be part of the problem. America’s dependency on fossil fuels is driving climate change while creating other problems for our foreign and domestic policy. Oil being priced in a global market means that even when we produce at home, money is going to countries that don’t share our values. And fluctuations in the price of oil per barrel cost the Department of Defense—the largest institutional consumer of oil in the country—millions of dollars.

Thankfully, there is an answer to all of these challenges that blunts the threat of climate change while setting us up for economic success: Developing a clean energy economy here at home. An expanding clean energy sector means new jobs that employ a wide range of skills, from solar panel installation to high-level research and development efforts. Moreover, developing clean energy technology to export to other nations will give us the leg up on the future; since when does America sit back and let other nations take the lead?

Much as they are already preparing for the effects of climate change, so is the military choosing to invest in clean energy technology. Drop-in biofuels are now powering the most advanced fighter aircraft and naval war machines in the world, and troops in the field are generating electricity from solar panels rather than risking life and limb to guard slow, target-rich fuel convoys through hostile territory. These aren’t academic questions or abstract theories—they are real advances that are making work easier for our people who serve in the most dangerous operating environments in the world.

Those aspiring to be the commander-in-chief of our nation need to have a plan for all threats—not just the ones that poll well or get the most cable news coverage. If we choose to continue our single-source dependency on oil and fuel the harmful effects of climate change, it will be our military that pays the price worldwide. By investing in clean energy today, we can build a safer and more prosperous America for tomorrow.

Andrea Marr is a member of the Truman Project’s Defense Council, an energy efficiency engineer, and a former officer in the U.S. Navy.