How to Integrate Climate in Future National Security

As part of a special series on climate in partnership with The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Cipher Brief Expert Kristin Wood, The Cipher Brief is focusing on the national security implications of climate change. 

We spoke recently with Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist and Advisory Board Member for the Center for Climate & Security, about the roots of climate change and its impact on global security.   

Goodman’s seminal report titled, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” published in 2007, is one of the foundations of today’s understanding of climate change as a national security risk.

Goodman is also Chair of the Board at the Council on Strategic Risks, Secretary General of the International Military Council on Climate Security, and Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Polar Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program.

We asked her to talk to us about her career, the impact of climate change on national security and how her research has shaped her understanding of future risk.

Goodman: My career has been a journey along the road from national security to environmental security to climate security, all of which connect. And now we know how deeply they are connected. I served first on the Senate Armed Services Committee as a professional staff member overseeing the nuclear weapons complex, weapons, and research and development for Senator Sam Nunn when he chaired the committee in the 1980s.

During that time, all of our nuclear weapons, production reactors, and processing plants were shut down for environmental safety and health lapses and that was the first time that the armed services committee really had to tackle environmental issues in the defense sector.

From there, I became the first deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security, serving from 1993 to 2001.

During that era, we were cleaning up contamination and closing active military bases. We were helping the Russians deal with liquid waste streams from nuclear submarines that were contaminating fishing grounds off the coast of Norway. We were also figuring out how the military departments could comply with environmental law so that they wouldn’t have their training stopped for failure to protect endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and the desert tortoise. We were also using military-to-military environmental cooperation globally as a way to promote democracy, trust and understanding, and build better practices within military organizations. Working with all the combatant commanders around the world during that era, we began to understand global environmental change. Climate change was only a small piece of the agenda at that time.

The Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997 was the first time that the Department of Defense looked seriously at limiting emissions and coping with climate change. We began to look at the effects of fuel use, particularly fuel and energy use in the military as it related to emissions. That work was really in its nascent stages when I left the department in 2001.

About five years later, I was asked to look at the national security implications of climate because climate change had become much more evident by that time, but not yet in the defense and intelligence sectors. That’s when I asked the military leaders, the generals and admirals whom I had worked with during my time in defense, if we could go on a journey together and learn from the world’s leading climate scientists about climate science and then apply our knowledge, so they could apply the knowledge as warfighters to national security.

Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist and Advisory Board Member for the Center for Climate Insecurity

We were based at one of our leading national security research organizations, the Center for Naval Analysis, where I was serving at the time. Many of them were skeptical when we started. They said, “Sherri, I’m a warfighter. I don’t know anything about climate change.” And I said, “Well, we only do this for you because we work with you.” So we went on this journey and by then, the Navy and the Air Force had their own weather and meteorology communities so they also brought their capabilities to bear.

And at the end of that journey, we released the 2007 report, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” where we characterize climate change as a threat multiplier for instability in fragile regions of the world. We know now that it affects us here at home every day, from the Texas grid outages, to the polar vortex, to the hurricane train and the floods in the Midwest and the fires out West.

So, that really put that subject on the map, and it was relevant in Congress. Since then, it’s been included in the national security strategies, defense strategies and military strategies, but as you know, in the last administration, climate was a four-letter word. So, most of the government was either not addressing it or using other words and workarounds. I called it the “keeping hope alive” projects that were focused on extreme weather events and sea-level rise without saying the word ‘climate’.  There was still a lot of good work going on within various parts of research organizations and the US government, but it wasn’t sufficiently funded and it happened sort of below the leadership level. But with every passing day and with every new event, we were learning how deeply connected the changing climate, warming temperatures, melting sea ice, changing ocean circulation patterns, extreme drought, and floods are affecting every sector of society now.

We know that it’s also destabilizing our security because we used to plan our military activities by assuming weather patterns based on historical evidence. Now, you can no longer rely on history to predict the future. That’s partly what’s been happening in every sector over the last decade, but it is getting increasingly worse where hundred-year floods are now annual floods and polar vortexes are now regular occurrences.

So that’s where we are today. Now climate is front and center in everything that the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community is doing. The president and vice president issued an executive order on January 27th to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad. Climate insecurity is that big section that incorporates a lot of the work that I’ve been personally involved with for decades now. I’m pleased and honored to see that it’s being put into action. Now that it will be implemented and resourced, these strategies will actually make a difference, both in mitigation and adaptation or resilience; we have to be able to do both. And that’s very important.

Wood: Can you explain the difference between mitigation and adaptation?

Goodman:  Mitigation refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change; CO2, methane, black carbon, and other emissions causing climate change. That really comes down to transforming how we use energy and reducing our reliance on coal and fossil fuels. That’s a huge job. Then, how we count it, how we measure it, and how we manage it. That’s also going to be a huge job. Within the Department of Defense, some of the good examples are electric vehicles. DOD is one of the largest vehicle purchasers in the country. And most of those aren’t tanks. Most of those driving around on military bases are what we call ‘non-tactical’ vehicles.  That federal fleet can be electrified, and that will help move the market on electrification. In recent weeks, we’ve also seen several car manufacturers say they’re only going to sell electric vehicles by 2030. That’s one good example of mitigation; counting and measuring and then changing, the energy system.

Resilience, and a subset of it, which is adaptation, refer to the fact that many of these climate changes are already baked into the earth system. We can’t halt them, even if we do our best to comply with the Paris Agreement, which the president rejoined. Even if everybody met their commitments, which they probably won’t, there are still a lot of changes already happening.  We have to become more resilient to the fact that the seas are rising daily.  Around Norfolk Military base, and the Naval Academy and places like that, there is flooding every day, even sunny day flooding. Wildfires are now a year-round occurrence in parts of the West. So, how do we change how we build our infrastructure? How we protect people? How we train our troops?

We have many more black flag days now where the heat and humidity index is over 90 degrees. Healthcare costs are rising for our troops. They can’t train as often because they put their health at risk, and potentially they cannot deploy to parts of the Middle East and South Asia, unless they can be adequately protected because some parts of the globe will become uninhabitable during certain times of the year in the coming decade or more.


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Wood: If you were to have the opportunity to talk to Secretary John Kerry, which you probably do, are there two or three priorities that you’d say we’ve just got to run as fast as we can on these and then continue to move the rest?

Goodman: Well, we have to integrate climate into all of our foreign policy and national security planning at the strategic level, and Secretary Kerry was working to do that when he was Secretary of State. He called on me several times to brief his teams at the State Department as they worked to integrate climate risk into foreign policy planning. Now, the Secretary of Defense is integrating climate risk into defense planning. And that’s part of the executive order. A good case in point is the Arctic. The Arctic is an ocean that’s opened in our lifetime to become navigable because of a sea ice retreat, a permafrost collapse, and a dramatic temperature rise. Now, we see Russia converting the Northern sea route into a toll road for transit from Asia to Europe. China is eyeing an ambitious polar silk road. The US Navy and Coast Guard are having to up their game and presence in the Arctic in ways we didn’t do during the cold war.

So, these ports are new risks. There are new opportunities for commercial activity and for exploiting the fossil fuels in the Arctic. These are all matters that need to be taken into account as we design our strategies. Russia, for example, has less ability to sell its fossil fuels on the global market because of a major global transition away from fossil fuels. How does it reset its economy? What does that mean for stability in Russia’s government longer term? These are some of the considerations we need to take into account.  In the Pacific, for example, China is taking advantage of the vacuum in US global climate leadership over the last few years and is using climate change to claim additional territory in the South China Sea. China is taking further advantage of owning the headwaters of the great waters of Asia, which is putting the downstream countries – India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and others – at greater risk for their long-term water supplies with dams and less predictable water sources in the climate era. And then we have Pacific Island nations, Caribbean Island nations, and small Island nations, whose entire existence may be wiped out in the coming decades with sea-level rise and the loss of fresh water on these Island atolls.


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Wood:  One thing that we haven’t talked about is the geopolitics of green energy. How do you see the risks to US national security with China in particular, although Russia as well, taking advantage of these opportunities related to green energy?

Goodman:  That’s a great question. The US, with its Build Back Better plan,  is going to compete globally for jobs in the green energy markets. As we develop more renewables, more electric vehicles, more microgrids, and better batteries, we evoke a global supply chain. Many of those rare earth minerals and other components are sourced globally. Even if we’re the ultimate manufacturer of the car or the assembly of the car may occur in the US, a lot of the parts are not made in the US. When you look at the defense industrial base for some of these strategic minerals, we need to fill some gaps that exist now in the US. We need to either start producing these products at home or develop a greater diversity of sources among our trusted friends and allies. We don’t want to become overly dependent on China for semiconductor parts or for lithium or for other rare earth minerals that we need. We need to examine this supply chain for the green transition in a way that we sufficiently understand what those vulnerabilities may be and ensure we protect ourselves against those risks.

Wood: How should national security professionals be thinking about approaching this challenge?

Goodman:  All of our best and well-trained analysts are already, in some ways, multi-disciplinary. If you’re a Russian analyst, for example, you know that you’ve got to understand the defensive military sector, the economic sector, maybe education, and maybe transportation. So really, you don’t need to become a climate scientist yourself. Still, you need to understand enough about how the climate is changing to apply that knowledge in different sectors to understand that it is a factor in virtually everything you’re doing. It’s not just an add-on. You could say, “Just add climate, just add climate,” but you have to do the analysis.

I think we’re going to train more of our national security and intelligence analysts in this field. Just as we’ve grown a whole STEM field, we need to keep growing that STEM field. We also need to take more of our physical and natural scientists or earth systems scientists and enable them to become national security leaders.

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