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Centre Climate: How is national security affected by climate change?

In January the Pentagon issued an ominous report to Congress on how climate change impacts the armed forces and national security. Two-thirds of 79 “mission-essential” military installations are vulnerable to flooding. Half are exposed to wildfires and mudslides.

“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to DOD missions, operational plans and installations,” said Defense Department spokesperson Heather Babb in a Bloomberg News story about the report.

Recent storm damage to Air Force bases Tyndall in Florida and Offutt in Nebraska will require $1.2 billion in expenditures to get them operational. The nation’s largest naval base, Norfolk-Hampton Roads, is threatened by flooding.

Beyond dangers to bases, the military’s mission is impacted by melting arctic ice which creates open sea lanes where none existed before. Russia is expanding its military footprint in the thawing North Country. Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently showed to a forum at the U.S. Senate satellite pictures of a brand new Russian naval base 300 miles from the Alaska coast. And Russian submarines are more active in the arctic than before, she added.

This was predicted by retired Rear Admiral David Titley when he spoke in State College at a Citizens’ Climate Lobby event. “In (Russian) minds their northern flank is vulnerable now that they have lost that natural (ice) border,” he said in March 2017.

Over time, military planners concluded that climate change will impact their mission in five ways which were discussed by President Barack Obama in a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

  • More humanitarian missions around the world to help people affected by natural disasters such as typhoons.

  • More disaster response missions at home.

  • A threat to the readiness of military forces (now documented in the Pentagon’s January 2019 report).

  • More competition for resources. The arctic will be “in play” in this contest.

  • Greater likelihood for civil strife and migrations. Floods, droughts, food and water shortages will spur social and economic instability.

In his local talk two years ago, Admiral Titley, now professor of meteorology at Penn State and the man who initiated the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, gave an example of that last point.

When Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, he wanted the nation to become self-sufficient in wheat production. It happened, but at the cost of depleting the aquifers. Then came drought. Farms failed leaving large numbers of desperate farmers. They pushed into the cities. Some became recruiting targets for ISIS extremists promising to improve their lives. Dr. Titley made plain that many non-climate factors were at play in the Syrian catastrophe but climate-caused problems made an already poor state of affairs worse.

Today, climate change impacting agriculture and fishing in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is a threat multiplier. Conjoined with fear of gang violence and oppressive governments in those nations, it contributes to the decisions of some to migrate to the U.S. border.

The active military strives to keep itself apart from partisan politics but it isn’t always easy. Two years ago, a congressman from York introduced an amendment that would have eliminated climate change from the military’s planning efforts. Forty-five Republicans, including Congressman Glenn Thompson, crossed party lines to defeat it and allow the military to continue taking global warming into account in planning.

Richard W. Jones is a member of the State College chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.