Prepping the US Military for Climate Change

A few weeks ago, I was asked to contribute to a new Diplomat Risk Intelligence report examining a range of risk scenarios for the Biden administration in the Asia-Pacific over the coming years. The scenario I wrote about was a typhoon, strengthened by warmer waters, clobbering the Philippines and Taiwan. The disaster in this scenario was not merely humanitarian but also geopolitical: The storm strikes during a major PLA military exercise and causes significant damage to the Taiwanese Navy, leading to an urgent call for American aid.

The scenario is fiction. But the vulnerability to extreme weather is very real. In 2018, the main training base for the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of F-22 Raptors took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. The 2011 tsunami flooded out an entire squadron of what were at the time Japan’s newest and most expensive fighter jets. And in 2019, Offutt Air Force Base – the command center that President George W. Bush was evacuated to on 9/11 – was inundated with floods following an increasingly common inland cyclones.

Extreme weather, of course, is not a new phenomenon. But a warming planet means more storms, bigger storms, and eroded coastlines that cannot provide the defense they once did against storm surges. And the vulnerability of military infrastructure to climate change-exacerbated storms is only one small dimension of the huge and growing climate crisis. In just the last 12 months we have seen the Australian and American militaries forced to urgently evacuate civilians from apocalyptic wildfires. And rising seas and temperatures are already destabilizing agricultural yields and displacing coastal populations, adding a huge, unpredictable, and profoundly damaging dynamic to geopolitics.

The Pentagon has been warning about its exposure to climate change for years, even in times when elected officials in the federal government did not take the crisis seriously. The Biden administration is unusually climate-focused, creating new climate-focused positions on the National Security Council and issuing an executive order calling on federal agencies to centralize climate in their strategies and to take actions to mitigate impact and plan for climate hazards. Biden’s emphasis on the agencies of national defense is important not because they are necessarily the most important actors in the battle against climate disaster but because of the privileged place they occupy in the American political imagination.

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So, what would a climate-focused U.S. military look like in practice? The glib answer – hybrid Humvees and compostable MREs – is mostly beside the point. Yes, there are incremental improvements that could be made to the emissions produced by military vehicles and facilities, though the foreseeable upside is relatively slim. The single largest contributor to the military’s carbon footprint is its air operations, which are inherently difficult to decarbonize. Similarly, military bases can be powered with more renewable energy and reinforced against expected severe weather, but these are expensive measures, which at best mitigate some of the predictable elements of the overall risk.

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Moreover, one of the crucial things the military needs to be prepared for in an age of climate crisis is a greater tempo of humanitarian relief operations. But such operations require a large, on-call force of strategic and tactical airlift, transport helicopters, and large transport and amphibious vessels – none of which can be easily converted to use carbon-neutral propulsion. It is, at an impossibly large scale, the air-conditioning paradox. The military can be prepared to assist the victims of growing numbers of climate disasters or it can scale back its own contributions to those disasters; absent a miraculous near-term technological breakthrough, it cannot effectively do both.

The picture when it comes to research and development is slightly less complex, but only slightly. The military can – both directly through its own laboratories and indirectly through its grant-making and contracting abilities – make a huge impact on national research and development priorities and progress, and spur competitive advancements in other countries. This can and should be leveraged toward both prevention and neutrality; after all, there are technologies like quick-charging, high-capacity batteries that could be key to decarbonization in both the defense and civilian sectors. But the Pentagon’s research budget is also often the first thing to be cut when military budgets shrink, as is likely to happen once the immediate health and economic crisis is past. And military research is not the ideal vehicle for climate change mitigation.

Given the stakes, the ever-diminishing timeline, and the preponderant role of the military in how the federal government conceptualizes and addresses challenges, it is impossible to avoid securitizing climate change to some degree. And the military does have a role to play in addressing the issue, albeit a supporting one. And that, in turn, might be the best message the defense establishment could send: telegraphing a willingness to accept a reprogramming of some of its budget allocation and mission set in order to confront a civilization-level challenge.