The Pentagon recognizes the threat of climate change — but not its own impact

A new report from the Department of Defense finds that climate change is a national security risk, though there isn't much urgency to cut military emissions.

An air to air right side view of Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51) and Fighter Squadron 111 (VF-111) F-14A...
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Climate change is a serious threat. Don’t buy it? Just ask the United States Department of Defense. In a new report published this week, the Pentagon acknowledged in no uncertain terms that the rising temperature of the planet is “reshaping” the world with “more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change” — though it is largely uninterested in analyzing the Defense Department’s own role in contributing to the crisis.

First, the good: The Department of Defense clearly recognizes the gravity of climate change and has a realistic view of its likely impacts. Climate change “touches most of what this department does, and this threat will continue to have worsening implications for U.S. national security,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin writes at the outset of the report. This shouldn’t be a big deal, but considering the Trump administration actively tried to obscure the science that shows how serious climate change is, all while the president’s own Defense Department warned him to take it seriously, this is a real victory.

Because of the very real risk that climate change presents, the Pentagon noted that it will start to prioritize climate-related threats in its planning and operations. The report also recognizes global warming as a “threat multiplier.” Areas that may already present their own dangers — be they topographical, geopolitical, or otherwise — will likely see new risks crop up because of climate change. Lack of food security, emergence of new or more disease, and unpredictable weather patterns, among other things, could destabilize areas.

The gross part of this generally okay assessment, though, is that it is all through the frame of military operations. Yes, for a report published by the Department of Defense, this should be expected. But it’s enough to make your stomach churn. For instance: The report recognizes the risk of wildfires which, to most of us, are a threat because they destroy essential habitats, undermine biodiversity, generate a massive amount of air pollution, and release carbon dioxide stored by trees — not to mention kill people and destroy homes. At the Pentagon, though, wildfires are more operational hazard than existential risk. The report warns that wildfires could cause “loss of range or accuracy” of weapons. Yikes.

This is a theme throughout the report: The Defense Department notes how extreme weather conditions may affect its bases located around the globe, without much thought as to how rhw conditions will harm the local populations. The closest it comes is acknowledging that climate change is likely to create instability in some regions, but it largely just examines that as a potential threat to business as usual rather than as, you know, a humanitarian crisis.

This brings up the worst part of the report: the complete lack of self-reflection about the Defense Department’s own operations. A 2019 report published by Brown University found that the U.S. military accounts for nearly 80% all U.S. government energy use. If the American military was its own country, it would rank somewhere between the 47th and 55th biggest polluter in the world. Little thought in the report is given to shrinking the Defense Department’s own footprint; instead, climate change is an inconvenience to maintaining military operations, rather than an impetus for adjusting them.

The Pentagon has warned about the risk of climate change for decades, and it can play a vital role in influencing political leaders to actually act. But the Defense Department also has to change the way it operates. We aren’t addressing climate change just so the military can continue polluting and occupying areas around the world free of guilt and accountability — we’re addressing it to keep the planet, and the people who live here, alive.