The Climate and U.S. National Security: A Conversation Series

Aerial view from the fighter plane’s cockpit flying over the low cloud cover mountain scape with head up display acquire targets and enemies location hidden in the dense mountain forest

By Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.)

Admiral Stavridis (Ret.) was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he earned a PhD in international affairs.  He is currently Vice Chair, Global Affairs and Managing Director at The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation.

CLIMATE — One of President Biden’s first areas of focus after taking office on Wednesday was on the climate, reinstating a commitment that the US will rejoin the Paris climate accord.

The Biden Administration is also pledging a review of more than 100 other climate or environment-related regulations and the President has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to lead his administration’s efforts as special presidential envoy for climate, a cabinet-level position that includes a seat at the National Security Council.

The Cipher Brief’s co-editor of our climate series, Kristin Wood, talked about why climate rises to the level of national security and its impact on military readiness with Cipher Brief Expert Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), who wrote recently in Bloomberg that the new  administration’s focus on climate, “…will be welcomed by environmentalists, of course, and by the Department of Defense, which may come as a surprise to observers who think of the Pentagon as a massive, gas-guzzling, anti-environmental entity.” 

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), Former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.) is a Cipher Brief Expert and served as the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he earned a PhD in international affairs.

Kristin Wood, Fellow, The Intelligence Project, Harvard

Kristin Wood is Co-Editor of The Cipher Brief’s Climate Series and is a non-resident fellow at the Intelligence Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  She is a 20-year CIA veteran and is a Cipher Brief Expert.

Wood: It’s clear from our epic year of climate disasters — some 22 events totaling $95 billion dollars — that climate change is a profound issue for the US domestically.  Why is it also a national security concern?

Stavridis: Every disaster to which DOD is called upon, quite appropriately, to respond to, takes away resources which could be used to deter our opponents and train our own forces.  These unplanned deployments are enormously expensive in both training time and money, and the opportunity cost of responding is high.  That decreases our overall national security.

Additionally, the damage done to DOD facilities and the costs to repair and refurbish them can be significant as well.  On Oct. 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael severely damaged Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, with 95 percent of its buildings severely damaged or destroyed. At the time, Tyndall served as the home base for nearly one-third of the Air Force’s fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. Seventeen aircraft had been crammed into a hanger in advance of the tide of destruction — only for chunks of the hangar’s roof to collapse on top of them.  The bill to repair the base is reportedly $5 billion.  We likewise have damage to piers, runways, equipment and training ranges.

Wood:  The US military is also often called upon to assist when humanitarian crises occur around the world. How has climate change and extreme weather affected the pace and severity of such situations already, and how do you see this playing out in the future if global temperatures continue to rise?

Stavridis:  Clearly, disruptive weather patterns will cause significant disruptions, but the longer-term damage from climate change may be even worse.  Already, significant conflicts are being fueled by high temperatures contributing to water shortages and crop failures in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.  Wars in Syria, Iraq, Mali and Afghanistan are all examples of that.

Wood:  The Pentagon reportedly is the largest single institutional producer of greenhouse gases on the planet, having generated an estimated 766 million metric tons of CO2 emissions between 2001 and 2017. It generates more pollution annually than many small countries.  What is DoD doing or what does it need to do about its own carbon footprint?

Stavridis:  Looking back to the Obama administration, there are many examples of the department working to clean up its emissions.  The most dramatic was the so-called “Great Green Fleet,” which sought to use hybrid, cleaner fuels to power a carrier strike group and its planes.  While the results were mixed, the intention was good, and it could serve as an example of what might happen in a Biden administration.  Additionally, DOD is a huge landlord with bases, quarters, buildings, hospitals, and structures all around the world.  Efforts to get these facilities to carbon zero ASAP would be another good place to start.

Wood:  Today, we’re seeing significant warming in the Arctic and Russia has, in recent years, significantly stepped up its activity by establishing new military facilities in an apparent effort to set up a strong position in this energy resource rich reason.  Why is a warming Arctic so important geopolitically?

Stavridis:  Because it opens up trade routes across the top of the world and creates competition for hydrocarbons as the ice melts.  As a result, the five nation nations (the US, Canada, Norway, Greenland and Iceland) are facing significant and increasing Russian activity.  That geopolitical competition may very well increase in the years ahead.

Wood:  How does the US military protect US claims in the area?  Russia has some 40 plus icebreakers needed for passage through often ice-filled seas, and the US has 2. As they require some 10 years to build and come in at $1BN each, how should the US be navigating — pun intended — the gap?

Stavridis:  We need to build more icebreakers ASAP and use alternative technologies (submarines, unmanned vehicles of all kinds, long range radar systems) to improve our surveillance.  Overflight and sailing under the ice will have to supplement our weak efforts on the waters.  We should also team with allies from NATO, perhaps collectively building and sailing icebreakers in the region — a “high North” version of the venerable standing naval forces Mediterranean, a NATO maritime task force in the south.

Wood:  What are your concerns about how climate change and extreme weather could serve as an advantage to US adversaries?  How do you see Russia, China, Iran and North Korea being affected?

Stavridis:  Russia and China in particular are happy to see the ice melting in the high North, as it opens real opportunities for them as discussed above.

Wood:  What do you think will be required of the Biden Administration, but also of DoD and the IC, in order to manage current and future climate and extreme weather-related challenges?

Stavridis:  We need to revisit the idea of an “Arctic Czar”, which existed in the Obama Administration with retired Coast Guard Commandant Bob Papp.  Our efforts should be channeled through existing international organizations like NATO and the UN, but in particular, through The Arctic Council.  Above all, we need to build ice breakers, create infrastructure in cooperation with Canada along our shared border in the Arctic, and take the region seriously.

Research credit: Mary Mahon

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