The Guns of Warming

How Treating Climate Change as a Security Issue Backfired

In the last 20 years, it has become conventional wisdom that climate change will have serious national security implications. As a way to marshal resources and public support for action, linking the two makes intuitive sense. But as time has gone by, that strategy has become more and more dubious. Instead of motivating a Great War on Climate Change, the defense establishment’s focus on climate-related security challenges has instead served as little more than justification for enriching the military-industrial complex. And ultimately, this disingenuous alliance between concepts has led to paltry, half-hearted solutions for increasingly urgent planetary problems.

I should confess that I had a small walk-on part in framing the need for US action around climate change in terms of security. My old consulting shop, the now-defunct San Francisco-based Global Business Network (GBN), where I worked from 2007 to 2013, was among the first to treat climate change as a serious security issue in a systematic way. In a 2003 report for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, GBN argued in part that climate change posed a variety of security threats that the Pentagon needed to take seriously. In particular, the report presented the case that rising seas and more powerful storms would eventually drive serious political unrest, particularly in poor countries with weak governing institutions. Such unrest could threaten US national security interests.

The scientific details relied upon for the GBN report have been largely superseded by better data. For example, the report focused on a scenario in which the rapid melting of ice in Greenland would cause the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation system to collapse, resulting in dramatic cooling—akin to what is theorized to have occurred during the so-called 8.2-kiloyear event. This is an outcome that contemporary climate models consider unlikely in the near future.

Yet even if the scientific calculations look different today, GBN was nonetheless successful in putting climate change on the Pentagon’s map as a security issue. About a year after the report was written, it was leaked to the London Observer, causing a public political kerfuffle. The report was interpreted to indicate that, while the George W. Bush White House was still in official denial mode regarding climate change, the Serious People over at the Pentagon were treating the threat as if it already constituted a grave security matter.

In the years since, the Serious People have become even more sober, and a vast academic and military planning literature has grown up discussing the security challenges that climate change may produce. To use a term often heard in post-9/11 Washington, where novel threats were perceived around every corner, climate change became “securitized.”

For much of the decade after that report leaked, I too was a member in good standing of the burgeoning “climate security” industry, working on a variety of consulting projects for three-letter agencies in Washington. I coauthored reports on how climate might spur refugee crises, which in turn might precipitate political meltdowns requiring humanitarian interventions led by the Department of Defense. I explained how declining water availability might foment state collapse in places like Yemen or Syria, creating not only humanitarian crises but also spaces for terrorist organizations to flourish. And I wrote about how rising seas might compromise the operational viability of many US bases, most of which are located no more than a meter above sea level. As I and two of my GBN colleagues, Doug Randall and Peter Schwartz (authors of the 2003 report for the Office of Net Assessment), concluded in a book chapter that appeared in 2011, “the question is no longer whether to securitize the climate change debate, but how to do so properly.”

In framing climate as a security issue, we were motivated by the sense that the civilian branches of government were simply failing to properly address the challenge—and yes, the threat—posed by climate change. If climate change were successfully presented as a security risk, we thought, then perhaps the one well-funded section of the American federal government—the military-intelligence-industrial complex—might be usefully enrolled in addressing the problem. Securitizing the climate change conversation was, in this sense, an instance of what lawyers refer to as “forum shopping”: looking for the courtroom where one’s case might get the friendliest hearing.

To be sure, most of the analyses of climate security risks that arose from this moment weren’t—and aren’t—incorrect. In fact, during the nearly two decades that have passed since we began banging the drum, many of the forecasts we made then have started to play out. (That’s not particularly impressive since the malign social and political effects of climate change are classic examples of what Peter Schwartz refers to as “inevitable surprises.”)

Not only that, but the idea that climate change poses a security threat has proliferated to become commonplace in the public sphere. By 2021, it was considered unremarkable for the US secretary of defense to publicly pronounce climate change an “existential threat.” To borrow a word from filmmaker Christopher Nolan, one might say that we pioneers of climate security thinking successfully performed “inception” (in which an idea is inserted into another’s mind) on the security community and indeed on the public at large.

One for the Money

Today, however, I look back at my climate security consulting work with a growing sense of unease. My concern now is not that the work was wrong, but rather that the conclusions my government clients drew from them were very different from the ones we ourselves hoped to promote. GBN papers always urged the creation of a national strategy for mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the arrival of security threats from climate change.

But this was not the primary message the Pentagon bureaucracy took away from our work. By and large, the spending requested to address climate change has tended to be in support of programs and platforms that DoD officials and policymakers were already committed to on prior grounds. Climate security, in other words, became the basis for demanding more, rather than for acting differently.

To see just how much the securitization of climate change has not changed the agenda at DoD, consider the department’s October 2021 Climate Risk Analysis, which noted that “the President’s FY 2022 Budget request included funds to incorporate climate risk into exercises, wargames, analyses, and studies,” and proceeded to list the kinds of problems it had in mind: loss of [combat] effectiveness based on climate conditions”; “loss of [aircraft] payload capacity, range, and loiter time based on increased temperatures”; “impact of medical evacuation and resupply by ground means”; “non-combatant Evacuation Operations [including] embassy security or evacuation considerations”; “access, basing, and overflight constraints”; “irregular threat icons that represent non-state actors, transnational criminal organizations, or other unofficial competitors motivated to disrupt operations”; and “critical infrastructure: climate-related delays, disruption, and/or degradation of DoD to produce, package, repair, and distribute materiel and ammunition and its effects on readiness and/or operations.”

Every single one of these activities—combat effectiveness, aircraft capacity, medical and non-combatant evacuations, threats from non-state actors, and critical infrastructure—were top priorities long before anyone was thinking about climate change. Not one word in either this report or its paired Climate Adaptation Plan proposed a single reordering of the defense and foreign policy establishment’s strategic priorities, with the one exception of plans (eventually, one day) “to include consideration of the social cost of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in applicable cost-benefit decisions.”

In sum, even when the defense-intelligence complex has taken seriously that climate change might produce novel threats or serve as a “threat multiplier,” it has continued to largely promote the same sorts of platforms and strategies that it did before the dawning realization of climate change threats. From the defense establishment’s perspective, it’s largely business as usual, just with climate change making everything a bit more difficult and dangerous—thus justifying bigger budgets for the same old things.

Green Priorities

If in fact the Department of Defense were taking climate change seriously as an existential security threat, it would be dramatically changing its priorities.

First, it would focus on mitigating its own emissions. The Department of Defense is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. That may seem extraordinary, but consider that an F-35 fighter jet burns about 1,300 gallons of fuel per hour of flight—about as much as a modern hybrid-engine sedan burns driving 60,000 miles. Likewise, NBC News estimated the US military was using more than 50 million gallons of fuel per month in 2008 just as part of its occupation in Iraq.

Yet the department’s 2020 “sustainability” plan candidly admitted that “DoD does not have any initiatives to reduce GHG.” That’s not just a Trump problem; when President Joe Biden issued an executive order in December 2021 “directing the government to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050,” it explicitly exempted any activity “related to national security, combat, intelligence, or military training.” That’s quite a tell: to the extent that the Defense Department is exempt from net-zero goals, those goals mean almost nothing at all.

It isn’t just cuts to the United States’ own military that would have to be on the table. Carbon footprint reductions would become centerpieces of arms control negotiations. Such treaties would seek not just to limit the size of arsenals but to reduce the size of whole militaries. Armed forces across the world go to extraordinary lengths to conceal just how many resources they consume and how much pollution they produce, but the best estimates are absolutely staggering. Around the globe, it seems likely that they are responsible for 6 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, if defense and foreign policy planners really were treating climate change as an existential security threat, they would also have to stop stoking Great Power and ideological rivalry with China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter on earth along with the United States. Instead, planners would seek to partner with China to reach shared reduction targets. Indeed, we would be looking to build new post-sovereign planetary-scale governing institutions commensurate to the challenge at hand.

Third, more generally, our military and foreign policy establishments would necessarily have to temper many of their other ambitions and priorities. Does hunting down terrorists who cause a few hundred casualties a year really justify preserving a military posture that entails emissions likely to eventually kill or displace millions? Is extending “full-spectrum dominance” into outer space really a priority if the price is distraction from addressing runaway climate change?

Each can be debated, but the main point is that if climate change really is an “existential” issue, then that debate needs to happen—and some defense priorities will have to be downgraded. As the researcher Miriam Pemberton is reported to have asked a decade ago, “If the effects of climate change are indeed so dire . . . then why shouldn’t defense dollars be redistributed toward [the Department of Education] and other federal outlets such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that can play integral roles in avoiding these impending disasters?”

Such reallocation simply hasn’t happened. Rather, like the threat of terrorism before it, climate change has been used to justify expansion of the same US military and associated industrial complex into new arenas.

The Test

If this reads as a screed against the military, it’s worth noting that the Pentagon’s selective reading of what climate change means for its agenda isn’t altogether different from how a very different group of actors have treated the challenge of climate change.

Like the security establishment in Washington, the dominant political groups in the United States have discovered in climate change not a challenge that forces them to reorder their priorities, but rather a pretext to reinscribe their arguments for political goals they’ve yearned for since long before the reality of climate change.

The right’s appetite for all things military is long-standing. But the left has also leveraged the climate security narrative to sponsor tenuously related projects. For example, whatever one makes of the proposals in the Green New Deal, it’s an evident greenwashing of long-standing social democratic priorities. This isn’t to say that someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders—or the planners in the Department of Defense—are insincere in invoking climate crisis as a justification for their agendas. Rather, it’s to say that these agendas are, at their core, not about climate change at all but rather a way to support these actors’ political priorities.

Which raises an interesting litmus test for all of us: Which of your political priorities have you been willing to downgrade to make addressing climate change the higher priority? Is the left willing to give up dreams of distributive justice and global equity to achieve serious greenhouse gas reductions? Could the right bring itself to offer climate-focused foreign aid and free licensing of climate mitigation technologies to countries in the Global South? Could the military give up its capacity (and the political class its appetite) for expeditionary campaigns? If the answer is no, then no one in position to marshal the world’s resources for planetary solutions is all that serious about climate change after all.