Climate and National Security

Becky Patton

By: Rebecca Patton

It is hard to put the threats posed by a changing climate into context when the news is filled with terrorist attacks, nuclear threats and a war that just seems to have no end.  Climate change seems to be almost frivolous, but unfortunately, it’s not.  So, what does that mean?  You can’t fight climate change with a gun or a missile or a submarine, so how is it a threat to national security?  

First let’s look at some definitions.  The September 2016 Presidential Memorandum on Climate Change and National Security (rescinded by President Trump under Executive Order 13873) contains terms and definitions that are still quite useful because they represent the consensus position of the Federal agencies working in the national security arena.  

“Climate change” refers to detectable changes in one or more climate system components over multiple decades, including changes in the average temperature of the atmosphere or ocean; changes in regional precipitation, winds, and cloudiness; and changes in the severity or duration of extreme weather, including droughts, floods, and storms.

“National security” refers to the protection of the Nation and its people and interests.

These are basic straightforward definitions.  The 2015 National Security Strategy identified climate change as an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water. It added that increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure, and property, which in turn threatens the global economy, and compounds the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.

The Presidential Memorandum summarized the issue thusly:  “Climate change and its associated impacts affect economic prosperity, public health and safety, and international stability. Extended drought, more frequent and severe weather events, heat waves, warming and acidifying ocean waters, catastrophic wildfires, and rising sea levels all have compounding effects on people’s health and well-being. Flooding and water scarcity can negatively affect food and energy production. Energy infrastructure, essential for supporting other key sectors, is already vulnerable to extreme weather and may be further compromised.

Impacts of a changing climate can create conditions that promote pest outbreaks and the spread of invasive species as well as plant, animal, and human disease, including emerging infectious disease, and these can further undermine economic growth and livelihoods. Impacts can also disrupt transportation service, cutting off vulnerable communities from relief immediately after events and reducing economic output. These conditions, in turn, can stress some countries’ ability to provide the conditions necessary for human security.  All of these effects can lead to population migration within and across international borders, spur crises, and amplify or accelerate conflict in countries or regions already facing instability and fragility.”

Climate change does not respect geographic boundaries, nor does it differentiate between the rich and the poor.  In fact, some of the most economically challenged people and areas are the most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate. This is not to ignore the wealthy enclaves like lower Manhattan, parts of Long Island and Miami Beach and the coastal vacation areas of the Atlantic seaboard.  But there  does seem to be an unwillingness to draw a direct correlation between climate change and political upheaval or social unrest.  

The National Intelligence Community has issued multiple assessments detailing the global threat posed by climate change.   The report released in September 2016, concurrent with the signing of the Presidential Memorandum, outlines in detail just what the threats are and will be.  The most recent, submitted by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats re-iterates the growing need to consider climate impacts in security planning.  The CIA established a climate and national security center in 2009, so this isn’t news to them. And in 2015, the Department of Defense issued a report to Congress outlining the major climate threats identified in each of the Geographic Combatant Commander’s areas of responsibility.  

There seems to be consensus in the national security arena that climate change is a real threat.  The big question is, how do we address this threat?  Adaptation to a new normal is a daunting task that the national security community is beginning to parse, prioritize and act upon.  While climate change may not seem an imminent threat today, the long-term implications are so massive that failure to begin planning now will have severe repercussions later.  This is an area ripe for discussion and action.


[Rebecca Patton, MS,  co-teaches NR 5884 Water & Conflict for the Virginia Tech MNR Degree Program.  Ms. Patton is a Program Manager with the Natural Resources Institute at Texas A&M University. She works in the DC Metro area supporting the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health, where she just completed an assignment as the Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Program Manager for the Department of Defense, spearheading the development of DoD’s climate policy. Photos courtesy of the Department of Defense.]