Climate change soon will be thrust back into the spotlight at the Pentagon, with the incoming Biden administration set to frame the issue as an immediate threat to national security, a destabilizing force around the world, and a danger to U.S. military installations at home and abroad.
The looming shift at the Defense Department, analysts and insiders say, will represent something of a return to the Obama era, a time when Pentagon leadership loudly and consistently cast climate change as an existential challenge that must be addressed across all corners of the military and as an enemy on par with China, Russia, or Islamic extremism.
After Democrat Joseph R. Biden is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, the new dynamic is likely to be as much about rhetoric and attitude as action. Throughout the Trump presidency, the Pentagon has prepared bases for rising sea levels and hotter temperatures, moved to more fuel-efficient technologies, and implemented a host of other programs and initiatives that military leaders said address the risks that a changing climate pose to military readiness.
Missing from that approach, however, has been a vocal message from the top, critics say. Defense secretaries and other high-level officials in the Trump administration have not spoken about climate change nor cast it as a major threat in the same way as their predecessors, perhaps leading to an unspoken understanding inside the Pentagon that the issue was no longer a top priority.
“In general, you’ll find that the military doesn’t whipsaw. They care about mission assurance, they care about military resilience, they care about readiness. That didn’t change from Obama to Trump to Biden,” said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security, which tracks the intersection of environmental and security issues.
“But when you talk about it in a strategic sense, you elevate certain discussions, and that makes a difference,” he said. “I have long said when the Trump administration came in, it’s not like they put their foot on the brake in the Department of Defense. But it’s like they took it off the accelerator. … Biden will put it back on.”
Given his campaign rhetoric and some of his early personnel choices, Mr. Biden appears set on implementing a host of new climate-change measures across government, including a likely return to the Obama-era Paris climate accord that set new limits on U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. Mr. Trump withdrew from that deal early in his presidency.
The incoming commander in chief also has signaled that he intends to use the entirety of the federal government — including the military — to further his ambitious climate agenda. In an essay this month explaining his choice of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be his defense secretary, Mr. Biden listed climate change as one of the key issues the next Pentagon leader must focus on.
“We must build a foreign policy that leads with diplomacy and revitalizes our alliances, putting American leadership back at the table and rallying the world to meet global threats to our security — from pandemics to climate change, from nuclear proliferation to the refugee crisis,” Mr. Biden said in the piece, published in The Atlantic.
Pressure from the left
While he voiced skepticism of the so-called Green New Deal, Mr. Biden still faces growing pressure from environmental groups and others on the left who argue that the planet is at a turning point and that the Biden administration may have the last real opportunity to stave off environmental disaster.
While many of those liberal voices have cast the Trump era as a catastrophe for the environment, the truth is that many of the worst fears simply did not materialize — at least as far as the Pentagon is concerned.
Early speculation that the White House would essentially ban references to climate change from official government documents and studies ultimately did not pan out, and the Defense Department itself — along with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force — has routinely addressed the impact of the issue on its operations and strategies.
Just this week, the Army released a major study that laid out how climate change poses a growing challenge to bases in the U.S. and around the world, many located along unstable coastlines or in harsh climates.
“In addition to deliberate and directed attacks from adversaries, Army installations exist within a natural environment increasingly characterized by the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, pandemics and environmental degradation,” the Army “Installations Strategy” reads in part. “Such conditions will require adaptation of existing infrastructure.”
That report follows an even more detailed study on the “implications of climate change” released by the Army last year. Other services have taken a similar tack.
Pentagon officials do not hesitate in describing climate change as a key issue confronting the military.
“The impacts from a changing climate will continue to pose a challenge to DoD missions, operational plans and installations,” a Defense Department official told The Washington Times. “DoD will focus on ensuring it remains ready and able to adapt to a wide variety of threats — regardless of the source — to fulfill our mission.”
In January 2019, the Defense Department published a lengthy study on the “effects of a changing climate” on the U.S. military, and the report laid out wildfires, flooding, desertification, food shortages, drought and other consequences that could not only impact the armed forces but also could spur new conflicts around the world.
Pentagon studies also have zeroed in on thawing ice in the Arctic, which has opened new shipping lanes and created a new playing field for great-power competition between the U.S. and competitors such as Russia and China.
Citing those and other examples, analysts stress that the military’s work to plan for and mitigate the effects of climate change has continued throughout the Trump administration. But they also point to some specific areas that could see increased attention early in a Biden administration.
For example, Mr. Conger cited a Pentagon directive that all military bases develop within five years a climate resilience plan.
“There hasn’t been a sense of urgency” to get it done, he said. “When the new administration comes in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them say … ‘Get it done in a year.’”