Lessons in Climate Adaptation from the Military

IAR Interviews
20 September 2017

Sherri Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the Environmental Change and Security Program, the Global Women's Leadership Initiative, and the Polar Initiative. She formerly served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security, working, among other projects, to clean up toxic, mothballed Russian subs in the late 1990s. Follow her on Twitter @GoodmanSherri.

* * *

For starters, military officials and leaders like General Jim Jones and Secretary of Defense James Mattis seem to really appreciate the importance of climate change and military readiness, but the administration and a lot of members of Congress don’t seem to. Do you see that as a problem?

Not in the near term. [In my recent CNBC article], I refer to Secretary Mattis’ statement and those of other political appointees, the incoming Navy Secretary and the person who has my former job, the assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations, and the environment, and they’ve all stated in various ways that climate change is impacting the stability of our forces where they’re deployed today. There continues to be Defense Department policy that’s relevant on this and so I think in the near term, the Department of Defense has the wherewithal to continue to do the practical planning and programming to affect resilience and security for its forces and its bases, particularly where one could say the “wolf is closest to the sled.” In other words, if you’re in Norfolk Naval Base, down in Hampton Roads, Virginia and seas are beginning to rise and you’ve got to redesign a pier, you’ve got to take into account the seas may be higher in the lifetime of that project; it’s just prudent planning to say ‘well, we think the sea is going to be X inches higher and we’re going to have to account for this level of storm surge’ and estimate that risk.

I had seen an article talking about how a lot of the new cyber units that are being established, they’re making sure that they’re going on the second level of buildings, not on the ground floor in case of flooding. So it seems that the military has their head around this problem, but the Administration doesn’t and theoretically, the directives flow from the Administration. So does it seem to you that the Defense Department and its affiliates will be perfectly fine dealing with this on their own, even though the people they’re supposed to be taking directives from are seeming to ignore the fact that it’s a problem at all?

I think if they get enough cover from senior political appointees like the Secretary of Defense or the Service Secretary, they should be fine. But they will always be mindful of framing things in a way that doesn’t offend the White House; that’s what agencies do, they try not offend the White House and they try to manage the programs in a way that best fulfils their mission.

So moving to how climate change affects countries where our troops are operating, Pamela Constable wrote a piece in the Washington Post about the high temperatures in Pakistan and how they resulted in power outages, unrest, and instability. Do you think the Administration has taken these events into account in their reassessment of American policy towards Afghanistan?

I haven’t personally researched it, but I do know that we always account for the impact of the environment on our forces when they deploy. So if we had to deploy our troops to an area that’s hotter, colder, wetter, or more at risk for infectious disease, force protection is a key element of any troop deployment. We already know that in the US, with more sustained high temperatures at key training ranges, we’re finding there are more ‘black flag days,’ where the heat index is above that which is healthy for sustained training. So the heat is already affecting training in the US, so it could have some impact in our forces deployed overseas.

The big question I have on this is how to practically apply how to deal with climate change today. I know your work in the past involved using climate change’s impact on national security and the military to motivate otherwise unwilling political actors. So how effective would those tactics be today, compared to back in the 90’s, when you could make the argument that political partisanship wasn’t as stark? 

On the one hand, the fact that the national security community is serious about the threat of climate change is taken into account by elected officials who represent districts with significant military installations in their communities. And you can see that reflected in the composition of the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House, which is a bipartisan ‘Noah’s Ark’ caucus, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats; if you look at the members of that caucus, you’ll see that a significant number of them have military installations in their districts and that’s because they recognize that climate is already affecting the operation of those facilities and that military installations and communities are already working to make their communities more resilient to the ravages of climate change. So that’s the good news. On the other hand, there’s a lot of political resistance in this field in general among certain elected officials and among certain parts of the population that feel this doesn’t fit how they think about things.

So it seems to me there’s a connection between Republicans who are willing to deal with climate change and Republicans who are somehow connected to the military or defense apparatus. Do you think that kind of political pressure would be able to move one step further? In other words, do you think we could get Republican members of Congress or members of agencies to exert political pressure on other representatives that don’t have that connection to the military to take climate change seriously?

I do think it has be a grassroots, local, community-based effort. That’s why it’s helpful that military communities that are affected by climate change are addressing this regardless of politics; that may be helpful to reframe the discussion to a way that’s more acceptable to a broader swath of Americans. There was an interesting story yesterday in Axios about why Hurricane Harvey won’t change views about climate change and it’s worth reading; ‘people have short attention spans, are too wedded to preconceived notions, and are in denial about the real consequences of this issue.’ People try to argue that we should use the climate security argument to reframe the whole of climate denial; my own personal view is that it’s more than that. It’s not only about reason; if it were all about reason and rational analysis, this would have been over a long time ago. It has much more to do with moneyed interests in various industries, and even though there are many oil and gas industries that are no longer as avidly supporting climate-denying scientists and others, you just have to read the front page of the Washington Post today. Part of this gets wrapped up into a broader attack on political agendas.

And finally, this is kind of a philosophical question, but do you think we run the risk of stripping climate change of its moral imperative if we continue to couch it in terms of national security and adaptation? Given current trends, if we don’t address climate change, we leave a very different world to our children and grandchildren’s generations. Do you see the moral case and the military readiness case as complementary or at odds?

I think they’re complementary but they’re not the same. The military’s approach is very practical and based on real-world risks; it’s not that it doesn’t have a moral and ethical component, but it doesn’t necessarily start from that. It has to do with risks and threats and assessments of them. It’s not incompatible, but I think they’re different lines of argument. Someone who sort of embodied them both was, for example, John McCain. When he was involved, almost a decade ago now, in efforts to pass climate legislation with Senator Lieberman, he often relied on a moral argument, but at the same time, he was very sympathetic and open to the emerging understanding within the national security community at the time to the security arguments. That’s not exactly where he started from, but he was willing to embrace both sets of arguments.

About Us

The International Affairs Review is a graduate student-run publication of The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Follow us on:

Submission Guidelines

The International Affairs Review is currently accepting article submissions. Submissions for the website are accepted on a weekly basis with a deadline of 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time each Thursday. Submissions for the print journal are accepted continuously, with article selection occurring at the beginning of each semester.

Click here for more information

Disclaimer

Opinions expressed in International Affairs Review are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Affairs Review, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, or any other person or organization formally associated with International Affairs Review.

Click here for more information

Contact Us

Please feel free to contact our team with any questions or concerns.

Email: iarweb@gwu.edu

The Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
1957 E Street, NW
Room 303-K
Washington, DC 20052