Pentagon says global warming presents immediate security threat

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was expected to highlight the report’s findings Monday at a summit meeting in Peru.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was expected to highlight the report’s findings Monday at a summit meeting in Peru.(Paolo Aguilar/European Pressphoto Agency)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon released a report Monday asserting decisively that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty, and food shortages.

It also predicted rising demand for military disaster response as extreme weather creates more global humanitarian crises.

The report lays out a road map for how the military will adapt to rising sea levels, more violent storms, and widespread droughts. The Defense Department will begin by integrating plans for climate change risks across all of its operations, from war games and strategic defense planning situations to a rethinking of the movement of supplies.


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking Monday at a summit meeting of defense ministers in Peru, was expected to highlight the report's findings and the global security threats of climate change.

While foreign policy experts have for years warned that climate change could present a future risk to national security, the Pentagon's characterization of climate change as a threat demanding immediate action represents a significant shift for the military.

In the past, the Pentagon's response to climate change has focused chiefly on preparing military installations to adapt to its effects, as in protecting coastal naval bases from rising sea levels.

But the new report calls on the military to incorporate climate change into broader strategic thinking about high-risk regions, for example, the ways in which drought and food shortages might set off political unrest in the Middle East and Africa.

"One of the differences from previous documents is that they're really looking at the immediate threat," said Marcus King, an expert on climate change and international affairs at George Washington University. "The other is that they're not just looking at installations — they're looking at a different level, the strategic impact across regions."

King and other experts said the broadened approach would include considering the role that climate change might have played in contributing to the rise of terrorist entities like the Islamic State.


"Climate change and water shortages may have triggered the drought that caused farmers to relocate to Syrian cities and triggered situations where youth were more susceptible to joining extremist groups," King said. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has seized scarce water resources to enhance its power and influence.

As the Pentagon plans for the impact of climate change, it is conducting a survey to assess the vulnerability of its more than 7,000 bases, installations, and other facilities. In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, which houses the largest concentration of American military sites in the world, rapidly rising sea levels have already led to recurrent flooding.

The Pentagon report is the latest in a series of studies highlighting the national security risks of climate change. A May report by a government-funded research group, the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, concluded that climate change was becoming a catalyst of global conflict.

In March, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, the agency's main public document describing the current doctrine of the US military, drew a direct link between the effects of global warming and terrorism.

The new report does not make any specific budget recommendations for how the military will carry out its climate change agenda.

If and when the Pentagon does request funding from Congress for spending on climate change initiatives, it will clash directly with congressional Republicans, many of whom question the established scientific evidence that human activities are causing climate change.


Republicans have fought to block and overturn most of President Obama's climate change policy initiatives.

"ISIS is still gaining ground and causing havoc in Syria and Iraq, with foreign fighters from over 80 countries coming and going into the fight and then returning to their home country," said Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a prominent skeptic of human-caused climate change, of the Pentagon report. "It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the president and his administration would focus on climate change when there are other, legitimate threats in the world."

The Pentagon's increased emphasis on the national security threats of climate change is aimed in part at building support for a UN agreement, to be signed next year in Paris, that would require the world's largest producers of planet-warming carbon pollution to slash their emissions, while increasing aid to help the world's most vulnerable populations adapt to the effects of global warming.