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Climate change could be "catastrophic" to national security, according to new report

Climate change is a worldwide existential threat — one that is so big that it can be hard to truly visualize the problem, as it is likely to touch every part of our lives in one way or another. A new report from the Center for Climate and Security — part of the nonprofit, non-partisan security policy institute the Council on Strategic Risks — narrows the scope some, focusing on national security. The findings are not promising, though perhaps expected: climate change could become a "catastrophic" threat to national security for just about every country around the world in the coming decades. The only hope of mitigating the worst risks is for humanity to reverse course and quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from dirty-burning fossil fuels.

According to the assessment, it's not a question of whether climate change will present security threats — it's simply a matter of how much. The report warns that even at low levels of warming, "the most fragile parts of the world are at the most risk" — highlighting how developing nations often bare the brunt of the world's burden when it comes to climate change. Even at these lower levels, defined as less than a one degree Celsius global temperature increase, most parts of the world will experience "serious" security risks, ranging from extreme weather events like droughts and flooding to loss of land caused by rising sea levels. According to the report, near-term temperature rises of between one and two degrees Celsius over the coming decades would result in "high" to "very high" levels of security risks that would threaten local ecosystems, infrastructure and institutions.

The higher global temperature rises, the worse the threat gets — even for advanced economies and developed nations that may have the resources and infrastructure to survive many of the worst conditions. This is because even if countries like the United States manage to avoid the worst-case scenarios presented by climate change, many of its allies and strategic alliances around the world will likely suffer. Regions where the U.S. and other global powers maintain relationships risk destabilization caused by climate change-related events and could require countries like the U.S. to provide extra resources, including the potential deployment of U.S. military members to at-risk areas.

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The scenarios raised by the independent report from the Center for Climate and Security fall in line with some of the U.S. military's own predictions. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense first tipped its hand at how serious climate change may be with its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. In it, the agency acknowledged that "climate change will affect the DOD's ability to defend the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security." It recognized that climate-related threats including rising tides could severely hamper the ability of coastal military bases to operate. The Pentagon also acknowledged that extreme weather events may necessitate the mobilization of the National Guard, which could stretch military resources thin.

These assessments were later confirmed and built upon in a report commissioned by the U.S. Army. In 2019 — even under the Trump administration and its climate change denialism — the military branch issued a report titled Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army that acknowledged the local and global challenges that climate change could present for its future operations. The Army assesses that climate-caused extreme weather events could wipe out crops in some regions, which would leave those areas without access to necessary food sources and could result in strife and conflict. Those situations may end up requiring international military intervention, something that the U.S. is typically well-equipped for — and something that it has already faced in Syria, where a brutal civil war was exacerbated by conditions of climate change.

The report also notes that the Army's presence may be required overseas to help with facilitating other challenges — particularly providing safe travel as millions of people around the world are faced with potential displacement. Rising sea levels threaten to force as many as 300 million people to move out of their homes by 2050 and could leave some regions completely uninhabitable. That level of mass migration would far exceed anything that we've seen thus far. The U.S. Army may be required to ensure that people land in places where they will be safe and not at risk for overpopulation, which can lead to tensions, conflict and even instances of genocide, according to the report.

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While those international conflicts may require U.S. intervention, per the Army's report, that risks spreading thin resources that may be required domestically. The Army's report warned that global issues have an effect at home, particularly when it comes to access to goods. When other regions fall into conflict, it can cut off access to food and other products that the United States and other economies import. There is also the risk that the country's power grid is hit by extreme weather that it is not prepared for and could be rendered useless. In those cases, the Army believes its services may be necessary — and if it is already facing other, international incidents, it may not have the resources to properly respond.

These issues are echoed in the Center for Climate and Security's report, which notes that America's role in the world is often to address and respond to conflict, given that it is a country of wealth and invests more than any other into its military resources. However, the report notes that the U.S. and the world may actually be better served not bulking up its military funding but rather heavily investing in clean energy sources that might help to mitigate the worst possible outcomes of climate change. The report calls on the U.S. and the world to phase out all fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gas emissions "as soon as possible" in order to avoid catastrophic scenarios. It also notes that heavy investment in "climate-proofing" infrastructure and other systems that humans heavily rely upon. Increasing resilience to things like levies that may be tested by rising tides and flood waters and power grids that may be taken down by extreme weather conditions will be necessary to maintain essential services and protect against climate threats.

Finally, the report calls on the U.S. to once again take a leadership role in communicating the threats of climate change and lead by example in addressing the problem. That is unlikely to occur under the Trump administration, which has turned climate denialism into its bread and butter, going out of its way to repeal environmental protections, even when no one is asking for it. Perhaps framing climate change as a security issue that requires a military response may be enough to appeal to Republicans and military hawks, who have been hardwired by conservative news commentators to doubt the science on the topic. If not, basically any Democratic candidate running for president will be more receptive to the topic than the current administration is. Turning the U.S. into a global leader on addressing climate change will require turning up to vote in November.