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National Security Depends on
Climate Change Preparation

RAdm. Ann C. Phillips
U.S. Navy (Retired),
Advisory Board Member, The Center for Climate and Security

Sea level will rise up to 6.6 ft., or 2 m, by the year 2100 with “business as usual” carbon emissions, according to the Climate Institute, and that is just one barometer of climate change. Add to that the increased frequency of extreme weather events, food scarcity and water insecurity, all of which creates a destabilizing effect in regions and nations where governments—already under stress—have limited capacity to cope with these threats. The defense community knows that climate change has a significant and intensifying impact on national security and that this results in disruptions that exacerbate security challenges around the world.

Recent confirmation hearing testimony, including that of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, addressed the significance of climate change as a driver of global instability, and, in fact, the Department of Defense has a history of including climate impacts in strategic planning and policy implementation dating back to at least 2003. This is because climate change can create and intensify real operational risks and global volatility.

From an operator’s perspective, these tangible threats magnify challenges from the most basic “man, train and equip” preparations by local commanders to the strategic implications and long-range global planning requirements of the combatant commander.

As warfighters, our armed forces have an inherent responsibility to prepare in order to execute their mission, and that preparation includes developing coastal, drought and wildfire resilience, and the innate flexibility to operate under the most challenging environmental and atmospheric conditions—from the Arctic to the desert.

Threats from climate change are not limited in their impact to federal or Department of Defense facilities or areas of operation. These threats also affect civilians that live and work in adjacent localities. This challenge is particularly acute at coastal military installations; locations as diverse as Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands find themselves threatened by climate impact from sea level rise and extreme weather.

For the defense community, the complexities lie in translating policy into action, hampered by a fiscal planning process that bases future decisions on historical conditions and a budget cycle that limits actionable progress to seven years (current year plus execution year and five planning years), with a nominal 20-year horizon for future infrastructure planning. Furthermore, fiscal prudence focuses on determining acceptable risk to meet—not exceed—stated requirements. Building in extra “adaptive resiliency” to prepare for climate predictions does not align well with the acquisition process. As the threat builds, the risk from these organizational limitations means far more cost to sustain operational capability and infrastructure resiliency, while the range of options diminishes.

The defense community must prioritize integrating climate resilience planning with fiscal and budgetary processes and become nimble in its ability to execute based on future climate impacts. First and most important, it must use predictive climate information. Next, the defense community must set definitive planning standards, supported by best known scientific and engineering data, tailored for specific needs of the most critical and vulnerable regions in question—and updated at appropriate intervals. It must further test these standards across strategic planning and operational scenarios that challenge the range of what can happen, instead of what might happen.

Finally, to do all this, the defense community cannot act alone. Climate change adaptation and resilience require an aligned whole-of-society approach to achieve solutions through collaboration across the full extent of government and community; local to global. The defense community takes seriously its inherent responsibility to prepare for the impact of climate on our national security—and it has no time to waste.

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