November 30, 1999

The Climate for Climate Change in the QDR

QDRCover3.jpgCongress basically defined global climate change as a national security issue in the Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-181). That Act required the Department of Defense to consider the effects of climate change on facilities, capabilities, missions, and partnerships and alliances, directing the Department to incorporate such concerns into all its strategy and planning documents.
That means that the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, DoD’s premier strategy document, by law will include consideration of climate change for the first time.

But what will that consideration look like, and more to the point, what should it look like? CNAS hosted a dinner on June 9th with many of the leaders in the Department of Defense on this very question – we had an interesting and exciting conversation, but it’s still too early to tell what the Department will do. I think it’s fair to say, though, that there’s some discomfort, particularly in the ground forces, about looking at a challenge of this nature as a security threat.

Perhaps it’s instructive to consider how DoD has looked at climate change in the past, after the Act was passed. The June 2008 National Defense Strategy  is all about the “long war,” and a little about China; it mentions climate change twice at the end of a section on the “strategic environment.” It’s a reasonable but perfunctory and qualified treatment (i.e., climate change in of itself is not the challenge, but rather how it relates to demographic pressures and energy consumption).

The Department actually lost ground in the Joint Forces Command’s November 2008 Joint Operating Environment. In a section called “Trends Influencing the World’s Security,” section G is titled “Climate Change and Natural Disasters,” just before “Pandemics.” The brief discussion notes that “scientific conclusions about the causes and potential effects of global warming are contradictory” -- a false statement. The text then basically sidesteps the issue by making the observation that disaster relief is an important exercise of soft power.

Now to be fair, these documents came out during the Bush Administration, and President Obama has made it clear that he will have a different approach on climate change. For a preview of how the new leadership may affect the 2010 QDR, we have this fact sheet from DoD. It explicitly mentions climate change as an integrated concern (i.e., more than a perfunctory mention to comply with the law), but there’s an interesting distinction made between “challenges” and “trends,” which is more or less consistent with the National Defense Strategy and the JOE.

In this case, the security challenges include violent extremist movements (guys with guns -- check), “rising powers with sophisticated weapons” (countries with guns -- check), and the spread of WMD (guys and countries getting bigger guns -- check). But then the fact sheet lists failed and failing states and “encroachment on the global commons.” The other challenges or threats under this category have agency – there’s a human being with intent to harm the United States or U.S. interests in the mix somewhere. But failing states and encroachment on the commons – those seem more like “powerful trends” that shape the strategic environment – these are not threats with agency.

It seems entirely appropriate to define climate change as part of the security environment of the 21st century, but in this case, the distinction between “challenges” and “trends” seems to be a distinction between threats we recognize as military matters, and other things we take seriously but don’t consider to really be military matters.

I’m very mindful of the fact that the military’s job is to fight and win the nation’s wars – and to prevent wars through strategies such as deterrence – and there’s always going to be a temptation to heap other related missions onto that. That tendency is greatly exacerbated by the fact that the military is the only part of the U.S. government with a large and accomplished expeditionary capability. So, I am all for clearly defining military roles and missions that are appropriate for the military. But I also think it’s important to fully consider the ways in which military roles and missions and how the country defines “national security” may be changing, as well. The guys and countries with guns will always be a primary military threat, but how we actually keep our nation safe from them may have a great deal more to do with how we shape and respond to the “trends,” going forward – and I suspect, from what early observations tell us, that climate change will be more than a trend (no disrespect meant to pandemic flu).

Photo: Cover image of the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. Courtesy of the Department of Defense.