World Resource Institute

Climate Change Adaptation and National Security

By Marcus King, Research Analyst, Center for Naval Analyses Environment and Energy Team, CNA

Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 1: Does climate change require new approaches to making decisions?

I largely agree with the authors who find that current decision-making practices used by governments are unable to incorporate the long-term nature, surprises, heightened change and variability, and the uncertainty of a changing climate.  My comments explore two points related to governmental responses to climate change. The utility of 1.) framing successful adaptation as a national security imperative and 2.) using national security risk assessment frameworks as a model for the development of climate change adaptation policy.

Climate change as a national security issue 

In her response, Malini Mehra states that the continued framing of climate change as an environmental issue is a contributing reason for it getting short shrift in terms of policy attention.  This observation is particularly salient within the United States. She notes that it is "difficult to set the agenda if one is shouting from the back of the classroom" and that the national security community has redefined climate change, moving the issue into a more prominent role in policy decision-making.  This has been accomplished in a number of ways that are worth reviewing.     

The U.S. Congress passed the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act directing the Pentagon to consider the effects of global warming on national security in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) a legislatively-mandated review of Department of Defense strategies and priorities. The QDR found that climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration. 

These conclusions were consistent with the earlier findings of the CNA Military Advisory Board (MAB), a group of 15 retired Generals and Admirals who first coined the concept of climate change as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world in the 2007 report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change

In 2008, the National Intelligence Council conducted a classified National Intelligence Assessment on the security implications of global climate change to 2030. The assessment judged that global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security.  

These views were reflected in President Obama"™s first comprehensive National Security Strategy released in 2010. The document observes that climate change will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.

The concept has also gained traction internationally. In 2007, the British government introduced the national security implications of climate change as a topic for debate in the UN Security Council.  Finally, commitment to this concept is demonstrated by the fact that the IPCC won the Nobel peace rather than science prize.  

Applying a national security risk assessment framework

I agree with Saleemul Huq that a paradigm shift in climate adaptation is needed from disaster management to disaster preparedness. Some examples of this approach can be taken from U.S. government actions. Among the U.S. military services, the Navy has taken a risk management or preparedness approach toward adapting to climate change.  In addition to its impacts on physical infrastructure, climate change may affect the Navy"™s roles and missions.  While significant scientific uncertainty about the impacts of climate change remains, the Navy has not waited for 100% certainty in order set priorities.

The Navy formed Task Force Climate Change in the summer of 2009. The task force factored climate change into its Arctic Roadmap acknowledging that while the Arctic is familiar to the Navy, expanded capabilities and capacity may be required for the Navy to operate in this region given the challenges posed by climate change.  The Oceanographer of the Navy, who leads the group, views the changing environmental situation in the Arctic as a challenge but recognizes that, if they wait, the situation will become a crisis. Likewise General Gordon Sullivan, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and Chairman of the CNA MAB reflected this thinking when he drew an analogy to climate change observing that: "We never have 100% certainty. If you wait until you have 100% certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield."             

While risk management is commonly employed by the national security and intelligence communities to address security threats, this frame has not yet penetrated the general climate change adaptation policy conversation. Because of this situation, these communities are leading evidence-based explorations of how to construct a prudent response to climate change, while other elements of the government are still focused on testing the political winds or waiting for the "best" scientific assessments.   


While it may be beneficial to apply national security definitions and decision frameworks to government-wide climate change adaptation policy, there are certain risks inherent to these approaches. 

First, there is some evidence that framing climate change as a national security risk has moved public opinion, raised awareness of climate risks and motivated the U.S. government to formulate adaptation strategies.  However, overemphasis of climate change as a national security threat risks under-appreciating the interdisciplinary and interdependent nature of successful adaptation solutions.  One must be careful not to invite military responses -- rather than necessary international assistance -- to address vexing problems caused by climate change. In cases where the climate change issue is militarized, the development community is easily overlooked.    

Second, national security analytical approaches are very useful but they are not "sure-fire" solutions to climate change adaptation and must be managed carefully. Governments need to be proactive about trying to manage climate risk "up front" through a variety of tools including build-up of humanitarian assistance capacity, strengthening resilience in domestic infrastructure, strengthening resilience in fragile states, and trying to limit overall warming through climate change mitigation policy. 

Finally, if climate change is a "threat multiplier" that leads to conflict, then how can we inform adaptation strategies that will prevent conflict? Risk assessment techniques familiar to the national security community may play a significant role.