Climatizing Security: Protecting Americans in the Age of Climate Change

Climatizing Security: Protecting Americans in the Age of Climate Change

The Biden administration’s Defense Department can lead by example with the “climatization of security.”


Beyond the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol and the coronavirus looms the climate crisis.  The Trump-fueled mob attack and climate change have one thing in common in America today:  they depend on the “Big Lie.” They feed off of the lie that the election was stolen; the lie that climate change is either not happening or not caused by human activity.

As President-elect Joe Biden has stated, climate change “poses an existential threat”disrupting the stability upon which America’s national security has long depended, from increasing the use of military forces for domestic relief from hurricanes, wildfires, and floods, to changing how and when the country must deploy its forces into the melting Arctic and drought-stricken regions in Africa and the Middle East. 


Climate change is set to challenge all systems on which global security, peace, and stability depend. As it does, Americans are rapidly witnessing the climatization of securitya condition in which all other security goals that the United States hopes to pursue become intertwined with the stark realities of a warming planet. In this context, Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, will be able to elevate attention to climate change and clean energy throughout the Pentagon, from strategy and force plans to technology and infrastructure.

Where should Austin start? We’ve outlined a comprehensive plan for the Department of Defense in our Climate Security Plan for America, released last year by the Center for Climate and Security. Above all, we recommend that the leadership of the department prioritize three big climate security actions. 

First, the secretary of defense should require that all Pentagon strategies and force plans, from the National Defense Strategy to the potential next Quadrennial Defense Review, to regional plans for specific theatres, address both the risks of climate change and the opportunities to address it.  Military leaders have long understood climate change to be a “threat multiplier,” which intensifies existing tensions, conflicts, and vulnerabilities across the globe. Its impacts, from destructive severe weather events to dwindling resources, are exacerbating existing strains in our most fragile communities at home and abroad.

Already, existing hotspots for security tensions are getting hotter, and old legacies of conflict are starting to reemerge. In Iraq, Islamic State recruiters have specifically targeted farmers losing their livelihoods to drought. In Central America, extreme weather has displaced thousands and bolstered the power of armed groups. In the South China Sea, fishermen follow migrating schools into contested waters, leading to international tensions and confrontations. In South-East Asia, Indian threats to limit the dwindling water resources supplied to Pakistan have led to renewed calls for war among the two nuclear powers.

These early signs of climate insecurity pale in comparison to the risks forecasted under warming scenarios for the decades to come. Without new norms and stronger institutions around contested issues like refugee resettlement, resource claims, and sea navigability, we could quickly enter competitive situations of militarized borders and the mercantilist seizure of strategic territories. How do existing alliances and institutions like NATO and the EU withstand the political pressures that follow widespread migration and ethnonationalist backlash? How might America’s adversaries take advantage of climate disasters for relative gains, or to stoke blame and weaponize anti-American sentiments?  These are just some of the questions that a climate-forward national security plan should address.

Second, the secretary of defense must make climate a priority in the full range of military-military engagements he and defense leaders undertake, just as Biden has prioritized discussing climate change with most of the foreign leaders who have contacted him following the election. Some nations and organizations will welcome this engagement, such as NATO, which has already elevated attention to climate risks in its forthcoming Strategic Concept. With other nations, like China, it will be a more complicated triangulation. In some cases, the United States will need to compete for influence where China is taking advantage of climate change to improve its military posture in the South China Sea or become the relief provider of first resort to vulnerable Pacific Island nations. In other cases, the United States can work with militaries that are trying to reduce their carbon “bootprint” and build the resilience of their forces.

Third, the incoming secretary of defense should lead by example in both clean energy and resilient infrastructure.  The Defense Department is the nation’s single largest energy user, at approximately 1 percent of U.S. energy.  It has already made important investments in clean energy, from solar-powered housing to microgrids and renewables for remotely-deployed forces.  With his experience as commander of Central Command, Lloyd Austin undoubtedly is already familiar with the burden that trucking energy and water to the front places on the lives of our soldiers and Marines. He is well-placed to translate his warfighting experience to enable the Department of Defense to “lead by example” in clean energy that improves mission performance and reduces our carbon footprint.

While the department already has a significant number of clean energy research and development efforts, bringing them together into a Clean Energy Innovation Office with additional investment would enable the Pentagon to more rapidly develop, test and deploy a wide range of clean energy technologies, from better batteries to green hydrogen, to advanced electric vehicles. The department needs to lead not only on mission-driven clean energy research and development but also on the transition of these technologies to the fleet and the field. Too often, improved energy and climate technologies do not make it beyond what some call the “Valley of Death” in technology deployment because there is no acquisition requirement for it.  This can and should change with a Clean Energy Transition Fund that incentives the military departments and acquisition commands to both try and buy lower carbon products. 

The Department of Defense can also take the lead in building resilient infrastructure, given that it has one of the largest building stocks in the nation. Biden has made climate-resilient infrastructure one of the top priorities in his climate agenda.  Here again, the Pentagon can lead by example in requiring that its military construction projects, from buildings to water systems, account for the changing climate.  The department is already investing tens of billions of dollars to “build back better” three major bases that were destroyed by hurricanes and floods in 2019.  And fortunately, it has recently developed its own climate assessment tool and plans to assess over three hundred bases for climate risk. The secretary of defense should direct the military’s various services to prioritize the actions recommended from these assessments to “build back better” the infrastructure of their most vulnerable bases.  These actions will also help the surrounding civilian communities, by providing jobs and improved interconnected infrastructure such as water and wastewater treatment systems.  

As we know all too well, the military is experiencing the destructive potential of climate risks alongside the rest of society. Its training exercises and weapons systems have been weakened by extreme heat, its military installations damaged in historic floods and storms, and its troops are increasingly deployed on dangerous humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. Just like the threats from nuclear missiles, terrorism, and bioweapons, ignoring climate risks will not make the danger go away. Thankfully, Biden has committed to protecting Americans from such risks. He has signaled that building global efforts to mitigate them would be central to national security and defense strategies. But there’s a lot of work to be done to realize that vision. Going forward, each and every investment made by the Pentagon will need to be scrutinized for how well it will hold up to growing climate extremes, and how it will transition the sector away from vulnerable energy systems and infrastructure.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns that military actors may extend too far into the civilian realm of climate policymaking, or see global resource scarcity through a harmful lens of competition. This potential for the “militarization” of climate policy should be minimized by ensuring that climate strategies are led by diplomacy and that decisions prioritize the diverse voices of the most vulnerable population. But even while supporting non-defense solutions, the security sector cannot ignore the realities and risks posed by climate change. 

The incoming Biden-Harris administration has already taken encouraging steps to make sure that confronting climate threats will be central to their government’s national security strategy. The appointment of Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry to the National Security Council means that high-level attention will be dedicated to the interaction of climate change with all other items on the agenda in the Situation Room.  Now, the Defense Department can “lead by example” in its strategy and force plans, engagements with other militaries, and in clean energy and resilient infrastructure.  By doing so, the U.S. military will not only improve the ability of our men and women to be the best fighting force in the world but will also show the world that we are prepared to climatize our security policies. 

Sherri Goodman is a Board Director at the Atlantic Council, Chair of the Board of the Council on Strategic Risks and former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security) from 19932001.