May 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

How climate change harms national security

Climate change poses a major threat to national security in the U.S. and abroad. Too often, public discourse in the U.S. assumes climate change is a problem for other nations and other generations, but the recently released third U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) clearly shows that climate change is already upon us here in the U.S., and its projected impacts are only likely to get worse.

In Michigan, the NCA report indicates increasing temperatures will degrade air quality, increase the duration of the pollen season, and bring increased extreme weather that will threaten our infrastructure and economy. These regional impacts, when combined with other climate change impacts in the U.S. and abroad, threaten the fabric of our nation—our political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information systems.

To clarify how climate change threatens our nation, 10 other members of the CNA Corporation’s Military Advisory Board (MAB) and I have produced CNA’s latest report, the soon to be released, called “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.” In our report, we emphasize that climate change impacts will multiply existing threats such as poverty, water scarcity, and political instability, and will increasingly be likely to serve as catalysts for instability and conflict.

In the U.S., sea level rise threatens military and civilian infrastructure and, already, the National Guard, the reserve, and the Army Corps of Engineers respond more frequently to wildfires, floods, snow events, and droughts both at home and abroad, restricting their availability to serve on other missions. It is the military’s fundamental purpose, as our report states, to “protect the homeland; build security globally; project power; and win our nation’s wars.” But anticipated changes in our environment will stress many components that contribute to the military’s readiness to perform those missions.

Rather than serving as catalysts for conflict, climate change can and should be serving as the catalyst for cooperation and change. In complex systems, when you face a set of obstacles or limitations, you must explore the range of possibilities and innovate; we have the opportunity now to do just that, to push ahead and not only address and adapt to climate change, but to create a far different mix of energy systems.

The American military, the single largest user of oil in the U.S., has recently begun transitioning to renewable and more efficient energy to improve its operational effectiveness and flexibility, with the added benefit of beginning to reduce its fossil fuel dependence and mitigate climate change. Civilian and uniformed leaders of our military know it is increasingly risky to depend on a single fuel source; these leaders are diversifying the military’s sources of power to make our bases more resilient and our forces more effective.

The U.S. and international community have yet to address the full spectrum of projected climate change issues as we of the CNA Military Advisory Board see them from a national security perspective. More must be done. Moving forward, the Department of Defense must be permitted for example to continue innovating and identifying opportunities to improve resilience, at lower costs.

Michigan must make mitigating climate change a priority. Michigan has a special ability to lead the nation in facing the consequences of climate change and creating America’s new energy future. Our state has enormous intellectual capacity — more engineers than any other state and a great network of research universities — as well as terrific entrepreneurial spirit, and the best manufacturing base in America.

We are called, I believe, to put the creativity and imagination of Michigan and the spirit of her people to work on building the new national energy system and being at the forefront of a resurgence of American intellectual and technical leadership at the same time.

Vice Admiral Lee Gunn (Ret.) is president of CNA Corporation’s Institute for Public Research (IPR) in Alexandria, Virginia.