More than a year before the United States formally entered World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned that “The history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: Too late. Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy. Too late in realizing the mortal danger. Too late in preparedness. Too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance.”
Today, as we pass another global heat record, we run the risk of being too late on climate change, endlessly debating causes at the expense of sensible actions. Just as we have underestimated recent threats, such as the Islamic State and a revanchist Russia, we are in danger of underestimating those threats that follow a changing climate.
Indeed, the days of climate change as a future concern are over. The Department of Defense’s recently released Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap notes that climate change “poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” the strongest language yet from the Pentagon.
A 2012 report from the Center for Climate and Security found that rapidly declining winter precipitation in the Middle East and North Africa, driven by a changing climate, contributed to the displacement of more than 1.5 million people in Syria from 2006-2011. These dynamics in the Middle East were forecast in a CNA Military Advisory Board report we contributed to back in 2007. In an update to that report released this year, we stressed that these impacts “are already accelerating instability in vulnerable areas of the world and are serving as catalysts for conflict.”
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This instability has real consequences for our national security. The Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review states that climate change may create “conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” This is supported by a 2012 intelligence community assessment, which warned that climate change may exacerbate the conditions that make it easier for terrorist organizations to seize scarce water resources as a means of enhancing their power and influence – as the Islamic State did along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, including the strategically essential Mosul Dam.
We should have seen it coming. Since 2003, defense and intelligence analysts have been telling us that climate change presents a threat to the United States, increasing the likelihood of instability, degrading military readiness and harming our critical infrastructure.
The good news is that the Department of Defense refuses to be too late in both realizing the mortal danger and in preparedness. The Pentagon’s aforementioned CCAR, for example, demonstrates the military’s increasing concern, noting that: “The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity or restricting electricity availability.”
Moreover, the road map lays plans for tackling the threat as the military sees it (regardless of the cause), calling on the department to assess how increases in disaster relief will stress force availability, build the resilience of training and testing venues, and help partner nations adapt.
The U.S. military is also not alone among security establishments in recognizing the threat. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified climate change as a “strategically significant risk” to the United States in its 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review and more than 70 percent of countries in the world call climate change a threat to their national security.
As former military leaders that operated in a wide variety of unstable, climate-stressed environments, on land, on water and underwater, we know these are not hypothetical concerns. That’s why the Pentagon’s recommendation that climate change considerations be integrated into guidance to Combatant Commanders is the kind of forward-leaning action we should expect across the U.S. government.
The bad news is that while the military refuses to be “too late” on climate change, short-sighted politics have prevented more robust action to reduce serious and costly risks.
After all, climate change poses threats to communities across the United States, including coastal zones, areas vulnerable to wildfires, agricultural regions hit by severe and frequent droughts, and the critical infrastructure that powers our economy. As climate change continues unabated, we may find ourselves faced with cascading disasters that are difficult to manage, particularly as our resources are stretched across domestic and international scenes.
Already, National Guard units are increasingly called upon to augment strained federal firefighting resources, while overseas, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps receive requests for international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief every two weeks, on average.
Military leaders see a direct connection between addressing the effects of climate change and succeeding in its mission to protect the United States. In short, the military gets it. But until our politicians get it too, we run the risk of fulfilling MacArthur’s admonishment of being “too late.”
Gen. Anthony Zinni, U.S. Marine Corps (retired), is the former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command. U.S. Air Force (retired), is the former commander of U.S. Air Combat Command. Adm. Frank “Skip” Bowman, U.S. Navy (retired), is the former director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and the deputy administrator for Naval Reactors in the NNSA. All are members of the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board. Email the authors at info@