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How is the U.S. military preparing for rising climate security risks?

by Laurie Goering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 31 March 2022 17:21 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: U.S. Marines and Sailors with 7th Engineer Support Battalion from Camp Pendleton train with professional wildland firefighters in preparation to support the National Interagency Fire Center to protect people, property and public lands before deploying to help fight fires in California from Camp Pendleton, California, U.S., September 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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Climate change is boosting security risks from disasters, sea level rise, extreme heat and more - and now is the time to prepare, U.S. security experts say

By Laurie Goering

March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From military bases threatened by rising sea levels to concerns too many soldiers could be diverted to fighting wildfires and floods, undermining combat readiness, climate change is creating new and growing security threats for the United States.

Since taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden has signed a range of orders aimed at addressing those risks, including officially making climate change a national security priority.

But progress to turn political will into on-the-ground action to reduce climate risks and adapt to rising threats is still too slow, according to Erin Sikorsky, director of the U.S.-based Center for Climate and Security (CCS).

"We're already behind," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as the CCS on Thursday released an assessment - backed by 70 former senior U.S. military and security officials - of the Biden administration's efforts to tackle fast-growing climate security risks at home and abroad.

Here are the major challenges for the United States, and why taking action now matters:   

What climate-linked security risks does the United States face?

Threats range from an increase in climate-related disasters at home - such as floods, storms and wildfires - which require soldiers to step in to help, to rising problems abroad as global warming drives more hunger, disasters, migration and conflict.

Geopolitical rivals, including Russia and China, are positioning themselves for military and commercial dominance in the fast-melting Arctic, as new passages open up.

"The U.S. needs to be prepared to operate up there as well," Sikorsky said.

U.S. bases, forces and general military readiness at home and overseas are also under pressure from climate change impacts, ranging from sea level rise to more extreme heat.

Climate change, meanwhile, is expected to fuel global - and potentially even domestic - tensions around food and water security, boosting calls for military aid or intervention.

"Climate change is reshaping the world in which we live and changing not only global security threats but the very capacity of the United States and its allies and partners to respond to them," the CCS report noted.   

What's being done to prepare the United States for rising risks?

Some agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, have for years worked to reduce a variety of climate threats, including the risks to military bases from higher oceans, as well as to cut emissions from military facilities and operations.

"They want to have a resilient force. They recognise no matter your politics on climate change, it will affect that resilience and ability to operate going forward," Sikorsky said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also now counts climate change as one of the country's top risks and is working to educate all its staff on how it will affect them - "a model I hope other agencies will follow", she added.

But much more needs to be done to get climate data and predictions into the hands of all government agencies and allies, in a form they can use on the ground, said Sikorsky, who also heads the International Military Council on Climate and Security.

"It's not just people in the climate office who need to understand this but everyone," she said - whether a Middle East strategist thinking about drought and hunger risk or a defense department logistician planning for extreme heat.   

What is holding back preparedness?

Funding is a problem, with many of Biden's climate-related spending proposals stalled in Congress - though agencies from the DHS to the Federal Emergency Management Authority have put requests in for cash to improve U.S. resilience to disasters.

And greater efforts are needed to improve forecasting of climate disasters, monitor where global hotspots are developing, and make the information widely available across government departments, Sikorsky said.

Practical understanding of climate risks can also help overcome political differences about the need to act, she said.

Then people come to understand they are making changes "not because they're tree-huggers, but because it matters to their work of protecting the country", she added.   

What still needs to happen?

The United States requires a national plan to adapt to a warming climate, Sikorsky said - a challenge in a country where threats vary widely from region to region.

War-games increasingly need to take climate change impacts into account, the CCS report noted.

It also said the United States should think about a new deep-water port in Alaska to better position itself to deal with security issues in the Arctic.

With wildfires, floods and other disasters growing - and aid agencies increasingly under-funded and overwhelmed - the United States will need a better plan to ensure its military is not swamped by disaster deployments at home or abroad.

If that planning doesn't happen soon, "we get things wrong," Sikorsky warned. "And we miss opportunities to get ahead of the risks."   

Related stories:

Climate inaction - and its 'dramatic' consequences - top global threat list

Climate change: 5 places where global warming is a security risk

Democracies failing on climate change face 'existential' threat

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate




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