Don’t militarize the response to the challenge of climate change

With almost daily reports of wicked weather events that often set records of the unwelcome kind, the issue of climate change has rightly garnered the attention of experts both in and out of government. Unfortunately, this has led some to want to address this serious peril in national security terms. Yes, climate change is undoubtedly an enormous issue for the armed forces, but even an inference of a militarized response to it is a bad idea.

An illustration of what I’m talking about is found in a recent blogpost by my friend and former Navy officer, Mark Nevitt. Mark titles his essay with a question: Climate Change: Our Greatest National Security Threat?, and then proceeds to answer it with what seems to be a strong “yes.” Others go even further: a politician claims that climate change is not just a very serious threat, but an “existential” one.

Although Mark wisely calls for various actions by a number of actors outside of the national security community, the fact remains that if climate change really is our “greatest” national security threat – and an existential one at that – shouldn’t we expect the national security establishment and, especially, the military to be primarily responsible for combatting it?

When I read the title of Mark’s post, I was reminded of my 1992 essay, The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.” Here’s what I said then:

Commentator James Fallows expressed the new thinking in an August 1991 article in Atlantic magazine. Musing on the contributions of the military to American society, Fallows wrote: “I am beginning to think that the only way the national government can do anything worthwhile is to invent a security threat and turn the job over to the military.” He elaborated on his reasoning:

According to our economic and political theories, most agencies of the government have no special standing to speak about the general national welfare. Each represents a certain constituency; the interest groups fight it out. The military, strangely, is the one government institution that has been assigned legitimacy to act on its notion of the collective good. “National defense” can make us do things—train engineers, build highways—that long-term good of the nation or common sense cannot.”

So, yes, my essay concedes that the military can get things done in our society, but I went on to warn about the strategic dangers of diluting the military’s focus on its raison d’être, that is, as the Supreme Court put it, to “fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.” Today, there are plenty of genuinely “existential” nation-state and even terrorist threats to keep our armed forces fully occupied. Think about what the military has to confront these days: cyber attacks, autonomous weapons, urban conflict, hybrid war, drone swarms, hyper-sonic missiles, nuclear bombs, chem/bio-armaments, and much more.

In the Coup of 2012 I also wrote about how the classification of every ill the nation faces in national security terms inevitably – and dangerously – politicizes the military because unavoidably it comes to involve domestic policy matters best left to elected politicians. Armed forces, I further argued, that become too enmeshed in domestic, non-warfighting tasks erode their ability to fight external aggression by authentic military powers.

Still, I do understand marketing value of the “national security” ‘bumper sticker’ as it would link a climate change response to the armed forces. After all, the military is the entity in which the American public has, by far, the most confidence.


But solving the dilemma of climate change requires wide-ranging efforts by our entire society, to include sensitive international diplomatic steps. Regarding the latter, the military is hardly the best organization with which to persuade, for example, Russia (one of the countries that may actually benefit from climate change) to take the necessary steps to remediate the causes of the climate crisis.

Mark lambasts the current Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and seems to speak favorably of the Green New Deal. Yet he also talks about the “Intelligence Community and Military Strik[ing] Back,” and leveraging its “enormous credibility” with respect to the politically-fraught topic of what to do about climate change.

If the implication is that the military ought to involve itself in these issues in some way, I strongly counsel against it. The military certainly has a role to play in countering climate change, but these are extraordinarily controversial and divisive matters that are, in my view, the sort that a military which seeks to be apolitical and nonpartisan ought to avoid involving itself or its credibility.

Of particular concern is Mark’s insistence that it is the “military” who has “the responsibility to prepare for future threats, however defined—this includes climate change.” This casts the military’s responsibility too wide. If the military’s responsibilities are extended to all threats “however defined,” doing so invites the military to intrude into areas of civilian life best left to civilian policy makers. Do we really want to risk militarizing society to address every threat “however defined”?

In truth, not everything affecting national security lends itself to a militarized solution. For example, obesity is touted as a “threat to national security, and other experts say “our nation’s public schools are so dreadful that they are a threat to our national security.”

Indeed, the General Accountability Office issued a report just last December that identified no less than 26 complicated, long-term “threats to U.S. national security” ranging from “biotechnology” to “Internal and International Migrations.”

Do we really want to put all that – along with climate change – on the military’s plate as “responsibilities” to undertake?

Even if the military managed in some way to carry out its “responsibility” to address the “national security threat” of climate change by somehow completely eliminating the U.S.’s part of the problem, that won’t end the “threat.” The fact is, as one article put, the U.S. Alone Can’t Stop Climate Change because there are other countries who need to take action if the adverse effects are to be avoided.

Thus, telling the military it has “the responsibility to prepare for future threats, however defined” induces the armed forces to look to “combat” the sources of a climate change. What might we expect the military to do about such nations as China and India who, we are told, are responsible for much of [the] growth in greenhouse gasses (which hit record levels in 2018)? Use force as one pundit suggests?

Moreover, the military tends to look for technological solutions to counter threats. If humans are the source of climate change, should we be surprised if the military begins to look for ways humans can modify the climate to something more consonant with our idiosyncratic national security interests?

Suppose the military uses its “enormous credibility” to call for changes to Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect the military to be thinking along those lines if, indeed, climate change really is our greatest “existential” threat?

To be clear, climate change is certainly a critical issue with which the military needs to deal. I agree with the Department of Defense’s 2019 climate change report that says:

“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense…missions, operational plans, and installations. Our 2018 National Defense Strategy prioritizes long-term strategic competition with great power competitors by focusing the Department’s efforts and resources to: 1) build a more lethal force, 2) strengthen alliances and attract new partners, and 3) reform the Department’s processes.  

To achieve these goals, DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of a variety of threats and conditions, including those from weather and natural events. To that end, DoD factors in the effects of the environment into its mission planning and execution to build resilience.” 

To me, this is a sensible approach that realistically accounts for the dangers of climate change, assigns the military appropriate duties with respect to it, and keeps the priorities as they should be for the armed forces. Notably, it doesn’t characterize climate change as America’s “greatest national security threat” or task the military with the “responsibility” for solving it.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that militarizing the climate change response might induce key actors outside the defense community to think they are off the hook. Actually, civil society can – and must – organize itself to effectively address this issue. Consider, for example, that last December former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg reported that through the efforts of the “private sector, individuals and companies” the U.S. is meeting the goals of Paris Climate Accords despite withdrawing from the agreement.”

In an era of renewed great power competition, the U.S. should not over-task its military with responsibility for solving the many problems of the 21st century. Instead, it should holistically call upon the creativity, initiative, and energy of its citizenry writ large to devise solutions to the problems that affect us all.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the law and the arguments, and decide for yourself!

You may also like...