Author:White, Daniel


Climate change heightens national security threats for states, and in particular, changes the calculus for the world's superpower, the United States. The United States continues to be involved in myriad international conflicts: military operations in the Yemen; trade policy jousting with China; and an increasingly consequential Arctic becoming a new arena among Great Power competitors. The latter, once a barren region, is now occupied by more than nine countries including Russia, China and the United States. The accelerating rate of decline in Arctic sea ice, which has now reached 12.8 percent over each decade relative to the 1981-2010 average, has enabled more military and economic activity in the region. (1) In order to better understand the national security implications of climate change, three topics must be explored: (1) the changing definition of threats; (2) budget prescription and flexibility, and; (3) developing new approaches towards a changing Arctic.

Considering climate change a threat is essential in order to maintain a high level of combat readiness when the American military will be called upon to serve in a variety of roles. Increasingly, the military is used in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief roles whose importance will be compounded by the increased operational tempo due to the nature of climate change. (2) The military must maintain its level of readiness to address current and diverse challenges spanning counterinsurgency and stability operations, without losing sight of the necessary changes to win future wars. A budget that is explicit in addressing this tension is necessary. A new Arctic strategy needs to be integrated into the broader national security and defense strategies; otherwise the United States' overall security will be undermined by competition from rival states in the Arctic.


The traditional definition of a threat is a combination of two factors: a rival actor's capability and intent. (3) Yet, this construct is only valid and applicable for modeling the behavior of traditional actors, such as states. When considering natural or environmental conditions such as climate change, however, threats must be understood from a wholistic perspective: any factor that has the capacity and ability to impede a state's objective may be threatening, regardless of intent. Under this broader construct of threat, non-state actors, such as climate, economic volatility, or even nationalist political trends present a threat to the United States. One recent example is the Budget Control Act of 2011, which, amid a backdrop of continuing resolutions, imposed sequestration and obstructed the United States from properly funding the military to meet global requirements to the point where the Secretary of Defense listed budget concerns as the number one threat to national security. (4) The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 specifically stated,

Climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting the stability in areas of the world both where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exists. (5) An event's potential negative impact on a nation's position, or perception of its position, is a more appropriate metric of a threat than the traditional model. Typically national security threats are understood as competitive state actors with varying capacities that may span conventional, nuclear, and cyber domains, as well as non-state actors, which may adopt asymmetric strategies. Recent examples of the latter include non-state or proto-state terrorists such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban in the Middle East as well as transnational crime organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, whose illicit activities and businesses undermine or subvert legitimate businesses and governments. As the flow of refugees and immigration from uninhabitable fragile states increases under climate change, overpopulated areas will become fertile ground for non-state actors to destabilize governments. This instability may provide fodder for terrorist organizations, which are adept at exploiting instability to recruit foot soldiers for extremist causes. (6)

Beginning in 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has submitted to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence the Worldwide Threat Assessment. Unlike other national security documents, this report is influenced less by political agendas and paints a clear picture of yearly security trends. This document summarizes the intelligence community's estimate of both current and future conflicts as they evolve around the globe. Often the Director of National Intelligence's testimony may contradict an administration's official view of current threats, as was recently seen in the debate between former DNI Dan Coates and President Trump with regards to ISIS. (7) Thus, the constant tug and pull between the executive and legislative branch will continue to exist, with congressional hearings critiquing executive policies and funding mechanisms in tension with executive orders.

A 2016 report summarized six possible ways in which climate change would impact national security: threats to the stability of countries, heightened social and political tensions, adverse effects on food prices and availability, increased risks to human health, negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness, and potential climate discontinuities and...

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