Prioritizing Climate Change in National Defense Strategies

FORUM Staff

The vast Indo-Pacific sits at the forefront of critical climate challenges that contribute to conflict, instability and forced migration. Changes in the seas and oceans, in particular, pose an increasing security threat. 

“Climate change-exacerbated impacts such as increasing food and water insecurity, forced migration and displacement, disaster response and recovery that does not meet expectations, and broader economic impacts can seriously complicate these existing security vulnerabilities — eroding coping capacities, increasing grievances and worsening underlying tensions and fragilities,” according to “Climate and Security in the Indo-Asia Pacific,” a report published in July 2020 by the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS). “Climate change impacts will interact with an evolving regional security landscape and likely give rise to new and potentially catastrophic risks, which could emerge in ways that are foreseeable but difficult to predict.”

Indo-Pacific residents are five times more likely to be affected by a natural disaster than individuals living elsewhere, according to IMCCS, a group of senior military leaders, security experts and security institutions dedicated to anticipating, analyzing and addressing the security risks of a changing climate. The IMCCS was launched at The Hague, Netherlands, in 2019 in response to a growing demand from military professionals to share information and best practices to address the security and military dimensions of climate change. 

“The world is at an inflection point for global climate action … we have witnessed a shift in awareness and growing acceptance of the security dimension of climate,” according to the IMCCS’s “The World Climate and Security Report 2021.” The report stated: “It is now time to turn that awareness into action, driven by a sense of urgency amongst nations and other essential actors to address climate security risks.”

Military experts suggest strengthening the community of defense and security actors who examine how climate change affects the security environment. These individuals should be tasked with advancing ways to integrate climate-related threats into defense policy and planning and cultivating ways to share best practices and leverage expertise on resilience and humanitarian aid and disaster relief, according to climate experts. 

“As a relatively new and dynamic non-traditional security issue, collaboration between security communities to understand and address climate security threats can improve preparedness for a changing security environment,” according to the IMCCS Indo-Asia Pacific report. 

Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. welcomes attendees to the Our Ocean Conference in Palau in April 2022. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

NO TIME TO WAIT

Regional groups have long kept climate change at the head of their discussions on national security and multinational cooperation. The Pacific Islands Forum, for example, has worked to maintain a strong and coordinated voice for the 18 Pacific island nations that comprise the forum in negotiating resources to combat climate change. 

“Pacific Islands Forum leaders recognize climate change as the single greatest threat to our region,” Henry Puna, the forum’s secretary general, said at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. “While there has been progress in the negotiations, more needs to be achieved.”

COP26 concluded with more than 100 world leaders pledging to end deforestation by 2030 to slow climate change. Among the Indo-Pacific signatories are Australia, Bhutan, Brunei, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, the United States and Vietnam. In a statement, the signatories called their pledge essential to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, an international treaty adopted by 196 parties in 2015 to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

The Our Ocean Conference in April 2022 produced a six-point action plan to combat ill effects on the world’s water bodies and garnered more than 400 commitments worth U.S. $16.35 billion from countries worldwide to protect ocean health and security.

“Island nations are on the frontlines of the dual ocean and climate challenges,” said Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr., who co-hosted the conference with John Kerry, U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate. “By hosting the meeting, Palau was not only able to show the world just how vulnerable we are to these crises, but also the many solutions available to tackle the problems today if we just choose to use them.”

Whipps called the threat facing Pacific nations real, saying coordinated action is needed to turn the tide.

“Oceans and coastal communities bear the brunt of climate change,” Whipps said, challenging Palauans and people worldwide to be part of the solution. “Our connection to the ocean is very personal. It’s our home. It’s our lifeline. It’s what makes us who we are.”

A man walks past a house abandoned after it was flooded due to rising sea levels in Central Java, Indonesia. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kerry emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to conquering climate change. The oceans are “the great climate temperature regulator,” he said. “These commitments tackled some of the greatest threats to the ocean of our time,” Kerry said. “They addressed plastic pollution. They addressed illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. They addressed the climate crisis. Not just words, but actions.”

Since 2014, the Our Ocean Conference has generated more than 1,800 commitments worth about U.S. $108 billion.

Scientific forecasts indicate that climate change through 2040 will have a more severe impact on countries including North Korea and several developing nations in South and Southeast Asia, according to a U.S. National Intelligence Council National Intelligence Estimate. Vulnerabilities to climate change could also create internal conflicts and increase the risk of instability in developing nations, including small island nations across the Pacific Ocean, according to the October 2021 report.

“More broadly, developing countries are likely to need to adapt to a mix of challenges that climate change will exacerbate. Ineffective water governance in developing countries will increase their vulnerability to climate effects, undermining livelihoods and health. Some will face new or more intense diseases and lower yields from existing staples of their agriculture,” according to the report, titled “Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to U.S. National Security Through 2040.” “In addition, insurgents and terrorists may benefit. We assess that most of the countries where al-Qaida or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] have a presence are highly vulnerable to climate change.”

Evidence suggests that natural disasters can be a precursor for an outbreak in terrorism, according to “Agenda For Change 2022: Shaping a Different Future For Our Nation,” a study published in February 2022 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The report noted spikes in terrorism in Sri Lanka and Thailand following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“The warming climate will cause unprecedented economic and social disruption in our region, particularly in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, with significant socioeconomic vulnerabilities,” the ASPI report stated. 

Indonesia and the Philippines account for 90% of the people living below the poverty line in Southeast Asia, according to ASPI. Employment across the region is in informal sectors, with no official social safety nets to support large populations displaced by disasters, the report said.

“Inequality is increasing, and ethnic and religious tensions have previously led to major outbreaks of violence, separatist movements and terrorism,” according to the ASPI report. “It’s likely that climate disruptions will reverse the recent regional decline in terrorist incidents and attacks.”

Only a small pile of rocks remains above the water line at low tide on this uninhabited island on Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands, as rising seas erode coastlines and contaminate freshwater wells. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), a joint initiative based in Samoa and composed of intergovernmental organizations for sustainable development, has focused on environmental impacts to the livelihoods and heritage of the Pacific since the 1970s. In its “Strategic Plan 2017-2026,” SPREP stated climate change is already affecting coastal and forest ecosystems, oceans, freshwater supplies and biodiversity, particularly in communities in small, low-lying countries where sea level rise and changing weather patterns have created social and economic disruption.

“Pacific island countries are striving to balance the needs and economic aspirations of their growing populations on the one hand, with the maintenance of healthy environments and natural systems on the other,” according to SPREP’s plan. “Our ability to address these threats together, to craft cooperative and sustainable solutions, build on the opportunities provided by ecosystem services and secure political commitment, will determine the future for Pacific islands people.”

Through 2026, SPREP’s focus areas include climate change resilience, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, waste management and pollution control, and environmental governance. Although the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges for collaboration and implementation of plans, SPREP’s leadership remains committed to the mission. 

“The fear and uncertainty of what is ahead is only natural, especially since we have all witnessed how things have dramatically changed during the past two years as a result of the pandemic,” Kosi Latu, SPREP’s director general, said in a January 2022 message on the organization’s website. “Still, we are here. In uncertain times like today, we need to be resilient; we cannot give up; we are duty bound to adapt, adjust and persevere.”

Latu and others say it’s past time that talk transitioned to action — and many agencies have already made the leap.

“Governments, institutions and individuals are taking action to mitigate the risks of climate change. New policies are being put in place, health care systems reformed and innovative solutions to tackle the negative effects of climate change created,” according to Asia Society Switzerland, a global network advancing dialogue and strengthening partnerships in Switzerland and Asia. “But a great deal remains to be done — and there is no time to wait.”

MISSING IN ACTION

While most militaries around the world adjust to limit their carbon footprint, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has remained largely silent about its climate strategy.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping has pledged to reduce China’s carbon output starting in 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, “but little has been heard from the PLA’s senior leaders, academics and strategists,” Defense One reported in January 2022.

“While climate change is a part of the Chinese military and militia’s concept of non-traditional security threats, addressing its effects does not yet appear to be part of its security strategy,” according to Defense One. 

The PLA quietly acknowledged climate change as a security concern in a 2010 white paper on national defense, following decades of reluctance to do so, according to the blog Lawfare.

“China’s shift from skeptic to true believer on climate change and security is not, for the most part, because leadership has suddenly become convinced that climate change is real,” a 2019 Lawfare post noted. “China is already affected by worsened floods, more extreme droughts, diminished fishery productivity and other ecological changes. The government has long understood that a warming climate will threaten the country’s agricultural production, make economically important cities vulnerable to catastrophic flooding and eventually dry out many of the country’s rivers.”

China’s major urban economic centers are mostly along its eastern coast and the river valleys that flow into it, according to Defense One. Because of population patterns, studies suggest that rising seas will displace at least 30 million people in China by 2050, Defense One reported. PLA facilities and forces are also at risk of displacement, including installations built on artificial reefs in the South China Sea.

“The PLA established a committee of climate experts 13 years ago, but it does not appear to be active. Climate change went unmentioned in the PLA’s 2019 Defense White Paper. Nor does the PLA appear to be taking the ever-increasing threats of environmental catastrophe seriously as part of [its] training or strategic outlook,” Defense One reported. “There has been no public discussion of exercises or attempts to wargame the effects of climate change on China’s security environment. Nor does construction appear to be slowing down on island installations in the South China Sea, despite the fact that many will find themselves underwater when the ice caps melt.”

Despite the lack of transparency by the PLA and CCP on climate action, analysts believe Xi must worry that climate change will affect his One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme. “Chinese companies, citizens and the state itself are increasingly exposed to climate-related security issues such as extreme flooding and drought, migration and protests over Chinese-financed infrastructure construction,” according to Lawfare. “It is no exaggeration to say that, in the coming decades, China’s response to climate change as it relates to agriculture, water and flooding will have profound impacts on billions of people.”

Additionally, environmentalists blame PRC-built dams along the Mekong River for contributing to historic flooding and droughts that have harmed the fish population and negatively impacted the livelihood of those who depend on the Mekong for food and income. “Regardless of how much rain falls during the wet season, upstream dam restrictions are devastating for the Mekong’s ecological success and the natural resources that come from the river upon which tens of millions rely,” Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, told the German news site DW.

Beijing denies its dams are the cause of the collapse in fishing stocks and other issues downstream, according to NBC News. In late 2020, the PRC created an online platform to share information about the river’s flow year-round. Critics say sharing data doesn’t change the reality of life in the region and the negative consequences that continue because of the dams.

“We see that there are agreements and promises from China to share information, but this is insufficient,” Pianporn Deetes, campaign director for International Rivers, an environmental conservation organization based in California, told DW. “Someone telling us they’re turning on or off the tap is not helpful. The Mekong and its people need natural and ecological flow in order to sustain the natural services.”

AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT

President Biden’s administration in October 2021 released a detailed plan for U.S. government agencies to implement climate change adaptation and resilience plans. The goal: Integrate climate-readiness across the missions and programs at all levels of government, including the military.

“Climate change is an existential threat to our nation’s security, and the Department of Defense (DOD) must act swiftly and boldly to take on this challenge and prepare for damage that cannot be avoided,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement about the DOD’s adaptation plan. “We do not intend merely to adapt to the devastation of climate change. We will work with nations around the world to meet the threat.”

Austin called climate change a destabilizing force that demands new missions and an altered operational environment. Extreme weather events affect troop readiness and drain resources, he said. Going forward, the DOD will include security implications of climate change in all risk analyses, strategy development and planning. It will also incorporate climate risks into modeling, simulations and wargaming.

“Developing sound intelligence estimates and decision-making tools about an inherently uncertain future where some specific climate changes are likely, yet not specifically known, requires both discipline and flexibility. Threat analysis, modeling and simulation, wargaming, and experimentation enhance the Department’s understanding of its current and future operating environments,” according to the DOD’s 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan. “Harnessing artificial intelligence to develop predictive models and decision support tools for operational and business decision-making processes can inform planning and operations in the U.S. and abroad.”

The DOD plan calls for collaborating with allies and other nations on new technologies, building partner nation capacity to respond to climate change-related hazards and working with communities adjacent to U.S. military installations to build shared resilience and enhance shared ecosystems. 

“Planning for today and into the future is our business,” Austin said, “and we would not be doing our job if we weren’t thinking about how climate change will affect what we do.”   

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