Asia Defense | Security

US Defense Secretary Notes Climate Change Focus in Message to Force

Lloyd Austin’s message foregrounds one of the key priorities of the Biden administration for the military.

US Defense Secretary Notes Climate Change Focus in Message to Force
Credit: Flickr/broombesoom

In a “Message to the Force” on March 4, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin outlined his three priorities, the first one of which, quite obviously, was defense of the United States. What is interesting – though unsurprising, given the Biden administration’s declared national security goals – is that the threat from climate change was one of the five areas of focus within that pillar.

“We face a growing climate crisis that is impacting our missions, plans, and capabilities and must be met by ambitious, immediate action. In line with the President’s direction, we will elevate climate as a national security priority, integrating climate considerations into the Department’s policies, strategies, and partner engagements,” Austin wrote.

“We will incorporate climate risk assessments into our war-gaming, modeling, and simulation, and we will bolster mission resilience and deploy solutions that optimize capability and reduce our own carbon footprint. Where possible, we will seek to lead the way for alternative climate-considered approaches for the country,” he added.

Biden, through an executive order signed on January 27, had directed the Pentagon to include climate risk assessments in the National Defense Strategy, due next year, and other military strategy and planning documents. The order asked the Pentagon and other federal agencies to produce “an analysis of the security implications of climate change (Climate Risk Analysis) that can be incorporated into modeling, simulation, war-gaming, and other analyses” within 120 days.

There are five distinct ways by which militaries around the world could find themselves intertwined with demands arising from climate change. They would be asked to reduce their own carbon footprint; military installations, especially on the coasts, would be increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events; and militaries would be called to attend to increasing number of humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) missions. But most importantly, second and higher order effects of climate change include conflicts arising from mass migration and resource division, both at home and abroad. Climate change effects could also compound existing geopolitical dilemmas for the U.S. military, as The Diplomat defense columnist Jacob Parakilas vividly visualized in a fictional scenario in the January Diplomat Risk Intelligence Monthly Report.

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To be sure, these concerns are not new – and the U.S. security establishment has been keenly aware of them for a while. For example, in 1974, President Richard Nixon’s National Security Council had produced a prescient memorandum for the president which noted, “If current increased population pressures continue they may have greater potential for future disruptions in foreign relations.” The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report – published in December 2012 and the “most widely disseminated in its history,” according to the council – identifies climate-change driven pressures on key natural resources as one of the four megatrends that would shape the mid-term future, to give another of many examples.

Kurt Campbell – Indo-Pacific coordinator in the Biden National Security Council and assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration – as a think tank scholar had put together two insightful studies, one in 2007 and the other in 2008, of issues at the intersection of climate change and U.S. national security.

And in fact, it is precisely in the already geopolitically-convoluted spaces in the Indo-Pacific that the U.S. military may have to confront a plethora of challenges related to climate risks, between planning future expeditionary operations, climate-proofing forward presence, as well as possible HA/DR missions in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. As the U.S. military reorients its footprint even further toward the Indo-Pacific, climate risks would certainly be part of the planning.