While the Department of Defense (DoD) may not commonly be seen as a leader in environmental sustainability efforts, the US military has been finding ways to combat and adapt to climate change. Much of the military’s efforts against climate change have been purely practical, protecting its infrastructure and facilities from climate-related factors such as extreme weather and rising sea levels. But the security challenges posed by climate change are far more pressing than just threats to infrastructure. The effects of climate change have the potential to cause significant changes that lead to the destabilization of many of the numerous regions where the US military operates. With more than a desire to merely “go green,” the DoD sees addressing climate change as an integral component of national security strategy.
Take the area around Lake Chad as an example of a region where climate change is already having a significant impact on regional stability. Approximately 30 million people in Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon depend on the lake as a water source for fishing and agriculture. According to the UN, the lake’s water mass has shrunk 90 percent since 1963. A rise in temperature at twice the global rate since 1970, along with desertification and unreliable rainfall in the broader Sahel region, has exacerbated the water shortage. Rapid population growth, along with overuse and mismanagement of water resources, compound an already delicate environmental ecosystem. The scarcity of resources has pushed farmers, pastoralists, and fishermen into closer contact, naturally leading to increased competition. This process destabilizes the economic situations of many, threatening their livelihoods to the brink of conflict.
This instability creates conditions for non-governmental armed groups such as Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group which has operated and carried out attacks in the area since 2009, to take root. Boko Haram and other extremist groups often arise from a number of complex socio-political and economic causes such as ineffective governance, civil unrest, struggling economies, and factional violence. These groups see recruitment opportunities in areas with large populations of vulnerable underemployed youth. Climate change is a potent force that influences almost all of these factors, especially in areas like the Sahel, which are experiencing its effects particularly acutely.
The correlation is by no means direct, but climate change concerns have aggravated an already dangerous situation. In 2013, President Obama deployed 100 US troops to Niger in hopes of working with governments to address the rise of extremist groups. By 2017, there were about 800 US military personnel in Niger and 6,000 across the broader Sahel region. The US also operates drones from bases in the area for surveillance and strikes against ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
Far from sub-Saharan Africa but with consequences just as important to the DoD, the Arctic demonstrates an entirely different operational challenge to the military. The Arctic region is rapidly becoming an area of contention between nations, including the US and Russia, due to its abundance of natural resources, increasing economic potential, and strategic position. Here, too, the DoD may find itself on a battleground in coming years as the US becomes embroiled in conflict over shipping routes and oil.
In both the Arctic and the Sahel, climate change is creating new security challenges for the DoD. The US has an interest in many areas affected by climate change, even when it doesn’t have a troop presence there. This means that the US military will have to proactively encourage global cooperation to mitigate the harms every country faces from climate change.
In the Arctic, US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Command have hosted a number of workshops with governments, the private sector, and scholars to focus on the projected effects of climate change in the Arctic. The US military sees the challenges posed by climate change as opportunities to strengthen relationships with other nations’ armed forces and improve relations abroad through an increased capacity for humanitarian missions. These projects are run through DoD regional commands, such as US Africa Command and US Central Command. The military also manages programs such as the Defense Environmental International Cooperation Program: the initiative organizes multilateral tabletop exercises, participates in climate change studies, and develops guidebooks to address environmental challenges. Climate concerns touch every nation and military on Earth, and the US military knows that international coalitions are indispensable.
Furthermore, the DoD is a significant benefactor of environmental and geoengineering research, leveraging its power and resources to drive climate change studies. While the DoD still funds projects in weather modification, which have historically been used as war tactics, most of the environmental research that it carries out now is related to mitigating the effects of climate change. Projects like these are often unrealistic to implement without broad international support. But if the US military expands and institutionalizes smaller-scale initiatives, such as the workshops and joint exercises in which the military is already engaged, it could go a long way in responding to the role of climate change as a catalyst of conflict.
An effort to encourage local cooperation should play a role in any solution to mitigate the influence of climate change on human conflict. Current US military interventions abroad often focus on assisting local forces in counterterrorism efforts, so far with little demonstrable success. Environmental programs to implement sustainable local resource management and agricultural practices, along with working with governments to protect carbon sinks, are more effective ways to avert or alleviate conflict. Having a focus beyond direct combat operations could also minimize backlash against a US military presence.
It remains unclear if the DoD will be able to expand these climate-oriented initiatives, given the Trump administration’s broad anti-environmental protection stance. Still, the recent $716 billion defense bill passed by Congress includes plans to protect military assets against environmental risks. This could indicate that as long as the administration’s priorities on higher defense spending are met, the DoD will continue to be granted funds to allocate to climate change-related conflict prevention.
While the military recognizes the threat that climate change poses, many of its responses to climate-related effects at the local level are not yet institutionalized or carried out at scale. These local-level initiatives hold promise in preventing the escalation of conflict in unstable regions and ought to be expanded to prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change.
Photo: Sahel Food Crisis