The Department of Defense Should Assess the Security Risks of Climate Change Policies

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The Pentagon is perhaps the most influential lobby on Capitol Hill and has the respect of many on the center-right who hold the likes of Greenpeace, Al Gore, and the United Nations in low regard. What’s more, if “even the generals are worried” and climate change is officially deemed a national security threat, then proponents of cap-and-trade get to wave the flag and depict their opponents as venal, partisan, or unpatriotic. So it’s not surprising that global warming activists for years have sought to institutionalize climate change concerns in Department of Defense (DOD) intelligence assessments, program planning, and budgeting.

They have made some headway, though the Department is still far from a hotbed of climate alarm. DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report (QDR) calls climate change a “key issue” that will play a “significant role in shaping the future security environment.” On the other hand, at a recent briefing on the QDR at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a top-ranking DOD official pointedly declined to define climate change as a “national security threat,” calling it instead an “instability accelerant”—a factor that could exacerbate conditions conducive to conflict within and among nations. Angst, hyperbole, and cheerleading for cap-and-trade were conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, the Wilson Center briefing lacked balance. Panelists discussed the security risks associated with climate change while seeming completely oblivious to the potential of various climate change policies to damage U.S. security interests. Similarly, the QDR says nothing about the security risks of climate policies.

This paper aims to inject some badly needed balance into discussions of climate change and national security. First, it takes a skeptical look at the claim that climate is an important “threat multiplier” or, as the QDR puts it, an “accelerant of instability and conflict.” Second, it outlines several ways in which climate policies can adversely affect U.S. national security.