America and climate change… a military problem

America and climate change… a military problem

The US military is currently dealing with the fierce war in Ukraine and tensions between the US and China over a number of issues. But the US military cannot afford to be late in taking action to tackle climate change, the most pressing strategic threat we face. When I was a young naval officer, I didn’t think about the many beautiful ports in which our fleet anchored in the United States. Now sea level rise threatens many of these ports. By the middle of the century, the Port of Norfolk, Virginia – the world’s largest naval base – and Mayport, Florida, will suffer significant losses in the waterfront docks.

Climate change is endangering our strategic core network. It also increases the demand for scarce marine resources, as it leads to more destructive and unpredictable storms. As a naval commander, I have been involved in numerous humanitarian relief efforts in response to natural disasters, including major hurricanes in the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean, wildfires in the American West, tsunamis in the Pacific, and storms in Central America. These disasters are becoming more frequent. At the same time, climate change poses a new challenge to national security by expanding the geography of oceans. The Arctic (or the Upper North as our Canadian friends euphemistically call it) has been largely frozen for most of the year in recorded history.

Now the ice is breaking up, shipping lanes are open most of the year, and rich hydrocarbon deposits are accessible. Thus, the Arctic has become a broader venue for major power competition between Russia and NATO countries, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and perhaps soon Sweden and Finland. Climate change is also heightening tensions between the developed world and developing countries in Latin America, Africa and South Asia by creating droughts in already vulnerable farming communities. “Climate change is one of the most destabilizing forces of our time, exacerbating other national security concerns and posing a serious challenge to preparedness,” said Marine Secretary Carlos del Toro. Both the Navy and Army have recently released well-researched white papers (reports) on the subject, outlining future issues.

However, concrete ideas are urgently needed to tackle this. First and foremost, the Ministry of Defense must reduce its CO2 emissions. They need to switch from hydrocarbon fuels to renewable energy sources for use in everyday transportation, and strengthen their facilities, especially those on the coast, to withstand severe storms, erosion and rising sea levels, and increase their use of recycled products while increasing the use of plastic. As the world’s largest global organization, these steps alone will have a measurable impact in reducing emissions.

A second urgent step is to apply the Department of Defense’s significant research and development capabilities to climate challenges. For example, to manage new Arctic responsibilities, the Pentagon must develop reinforced naval vessels (e.g. cruisers and destroyers) capable of tracking and combat operations in the north, train ground and air forces in the harsh conditions of the Arctic coast, and consider Increase the number of icebreakers for ships, some of which are nuclear-powered, and set up logistics systems appropriate for the region. To counter not only the open Arctic, but also rising sea levels, violent weather and humanitarian crises caused by drought, the Department of Defense needs a dedicated environmental research center to generate ideas for things like new military nuclear power systems, storm-resistant materials, temporary ( prefab)housing and storage of food Transportable food. All these elements must be designed to be transported worldwide via military air and naval capabilities.

The US National Security Institute should also promote international cooperation on climate challenges. The US Coast Guard is well placed to work with other navies on fisheries enforcement, pollution control, dumping and plastic removal. The Department of Defense must also work with other US agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (including the Coast Guard), to respond to national and international natural disasters. The Departments of State and Trade and the Environmental Protection Agency both have strong environmental programs that may coincide with the efforts of the Department of Defense. There is an interdepartmental drug control task force. Why not create another team to work together on climate-related challenges? With governments and private companies devoting more energy and attention to climate protection, the US National Security Agency must also face the threat of the century.

James Stavridis*

* Former Commander in Chief of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Published by special arrangement with the Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service.

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