The military is preparing for the battle against climate change

The military is preparing for the battle against climate change

Rebecca Lehman                                                                        

“Climate change is an ‘all hands on deck’ problem,” said Mark Nevitt. His marine reference was no surprise, as Nevitt is a Navy Commander. Nevitt is preparing for our war on climate change and making sure the navy, military, and the United States are prepared.

When it comes to climate action, we often think that the solutions will come from government interventions, business practices or the non-governmental sector. But the U.S. military represents clear untapped potential for solutions and interventions in climate planning and mitigation. “We can plan for anything” said Nevitt at the Climate Change and National Security panel held during the New Directions in Environmental Law conference hosted at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The panel was made up of three key climate strategists from different arms of government. Mark Nevitt was joined by Reed Schuler, a key negotiator for the Paris Climate Agreement through his role on the policy staff for the U.S. Department of State, and Shara Mohtadi, a climate advisor for New York State who was a White House policy advisor on climate and energy issues.

Climate change, the panelists reminded us, is a national security risk. These future security risks are diverse and dangerous - from sea level rise inundating key naval bases to heat and drought instigating wars around the world.

Nevitt highlighted that not only is the military planning for how to adapt to climate impacts, the agency is also very interested in mitigation. The military is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and is currently the largest polluter in the United States. Because of the crippling reliance on fossil fuels, the military has a vested interest in finding alternative fuels. The newly appointed Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, shares this sentiment. Mattis was famously quoted saying he wants to “unleash [the US military] from the tether of fuel”. Nevitt pointed to the Secretary’s opinion and position of power as one of many hopeful signs for leadership on climate change during the Trump presidency.

U.S. national security is also tethered to peace in a vast network of global partners. Mohtadi spoke to the recent example of how climate change has tipped the scales from peace to instability. Her graduate research followed droughts in Syria, which caused a massive rural to urban migration of 1.5 million farmers. This surge of the city population raised rent prices by 400%, caused food scarcity, and opened up massive instability. “While we can’t say that drought was a substantial cause for the Syrian crisis, we do know that extreme weather events can be devastating when there are underlying vulnerabilities,” said Mohtadi.

The catastrophic unraveling of Syria can be a cautionary tale. Mohtadi’s work showed that climate change is both a catalyst and a tipping point that US foreign policy is not currently analyzing with the scrutiny needed. Reed agreed with Mohtadi; based on his experience in diplomacy, preemptive planning is not a strength: “Crisis response is the focus of diplomacy, rather than long-term capacity building.”

As the panel came to a close, we were reminded of the vast amount of knowledge within government, however, the issue at hand is communication within our deeply fractured government entities. While the military is planning for climate risks, US policy analysists are preparing to respond. To better solve the looming wicked problem of climate change, all panelists argued we need to work together.

Rebecca Lehman is a first year Masters in Environmental Management student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. As a student she is focusing on GIS, Water Resources and science communications. She is the media and communications manager of Yale Environment Review, a student-run publication. 

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