The U.S. Military’s Long-Standing Concern About Climate Change

Neil Bhatiya, Center for Climate and Security

In Season 2 of Years of Living Dangerously, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will visit with one constituency in the United States very concerned about the impacts of climate change on their day-to-day lives: the U.S. military. Virtually every facet of how our armed forces execute their missions will be touched by climate change: the security of its energy supplies (Schwarzenegger gets a close-up view of the complicated logistics in a visit to Kuwait); the future usability of its bases and installations; and the causes and contours of future conflicts.

Concerns about climate change are nothing new to this country’s national security officials. Defense and intelligence officials since the early 2000s have been warning that climate change and its impacts on state fragility will imperil U.S. national security interests. The past several years have provided more examples of how weather extremes, like an unprecedented drought in Syria, have played an important role in exacerbating conflict.

While conflict in the Middle East is an important concern from the U.S. perspective, our military’s global presence means there are no shortages of theaters in which climate impacts will complicate their mission. Perhaps one of the areas in which climate change impacts can most easily undermine critical U.S. national security interests is in South Asia.

Economic growth and political stability (especially between India and Pakistan) throughout the region has been a key goal for the United States since the end of the Cold War. While that goal has been challenged by extremist violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it faces an equally daunting challenge from climate. Shared water management, to take just one example, is critical for growth in the region, where agricultural activity is an important sector in the overall economy. This is true for Afghanistan, where the U.S. invested money and lives in support of the government in Kabul, which has a legal framework for settling disputes that is underdeveloped, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission. Many of those disputes are unfolding at the local level, which may present an opportunity for anti-government militants to exercise influence. These concerns are also present for India and Pakistan, whose track record of water sharing has become a contentious point among a wider escalation of tensions over cross-border terrorism.

The challenge for successive administrations will be to balance these emerging threats with the more traditional security challenges facing the Subcontinent and other areas of operation around the world. The Climate and Security Advisory Group-a voluntary, nonpartisan group of 43 U.S.-based military, national security, homeland security, intelligence, and foreign policy experts-has provided a roadmap for a future administration to more closely integrate climate change into U.S. national security planning. Helping regions like South Asia deal with climate effects will be a key aspect of U.S. foreign policy for decades to come; it requires investments in expertise and resources now.


Neil Bhatiya is the Climate and Diplomacy Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington, DC-based policy institute with an advisory board of senior military and national security experts.