Small Wars Journal

Preparing for Climate Change in the World’s Top Militaries

Mon, 01/11/2021 - 8:17pm

Preparing for Climate Change in the World’s Top Militaries

By Justin Leopold-Cohen

            There has been considerable analysis on the competition between the United States, Russia, and China, and potential military conflict. These pieces tend to examine respective militaries’ firepower, troop numbers, hybrid capabilities, and other conventional measures, however, strategists ought to consider how these militaries are preparing for the consequences of climate change. The environment can shape matters at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels just as much as more traditional measures. Be it Napoleon choosing to retreat out of Russia rather than endure the harsh winter, World War II’s delayed D-Day Invasion and effects on allied airpower during the Battle of the Bulge, or visual challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan from sand and dust storms, which were even known to cause lung disease to servicemen after prolonged exposure.

Besides the impact on how military strategy is planned, there is also discussion among military strategy scholars on how climate change will create an increase in armed conflict globally. A 2019 Stanford-led study found that climate has already affected between three and 20 percent of armed conflict risks in the last century and this will increase as more incidents of extreme weather continue to occur. The Stanford study explains that as increasing levels of extreme weather persist, there will be more environmental disasters, negative impacts to national economies, as well as reduction in natural resources, all of which can be drivers of conflict. Given the existing and potential influence of climate on armed conflicts, as well as damage to military infrastructure and humanitarian driven deployments, how are the world’s top militaries preparing for climate change?

This may be an unending, open ended question. Not only are the full impacts of climate change uncertain at the present time, but the Earth’s climate system is dynamic and may continue shifting regardless of how nations adapt. Therefore, the world’s top militaries will never stop needing to prepare for the constantly changing shifts in global climate. What is certain, however, is that by examining how the world’s top militaries perceive and address climate change now can shape how they will adapt to the effects of climate change in the future.

Global Fire Power (GPF) — a research service that assesses military strength through 50 individual factors from manpower to natural resources and geography — unsurprisingly ranks the U.S., Russia, and China as the world’s top militaries, respectively in that order. In addition to these three nations’ military might, they also represent some of the top emitting nations in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Therefore, as these countries incur damaging effects of GHG, their threat and policy perceptions will shape how they decide to act militarily. The U.S., Russia and China will each have unique challenges posed to their militaries by climate change and therefore unique responses in order to adapt.

United States of America: Political Debate, Military Reality

Climate change remains a politically polarizing issue in the U.S. This is due to a combination of many Americans being skeptical of climate science, not viewing the issue as a genuine threat, and or believing that investing in measures to address climate change might threaten the U.S.’ economic interests.

Despite the often heated political discourse surrounding the topic, especially during the Trump administration, many U.S. institutions have worked to address climate change. A 2019 UN Foundation study found that the actions of local governors in the U.S. Climate Alliance has allowed the U.S. to continue leading the world in several areas of climate action, despite the Trump administrations’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

            The U.S. Defense Department (DoD) has begun to acknowledge that non-state actors and hostile nations are not the only or even most complex threats that exist, as military bases and supporting infrastructure are subject to more severe hurricanes and rising sea levels around the world. This was clearly evident when the Category 5 hurricane Michael bombarded Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida this September, severely damaging 95 percent of its buildings, and costing $5 billion in aircraft repairs. Several initiatives are being undertaken, including building sea walls around military bases vulnerable to flooding and updating heat related illness policies with improved prevention measures and treatment protocols to meet rising temperatures. DoD assessments, such as the 2019 Report on the Effects of Climate Change to the Department of Defense and the 2020 Army Climate Resilience Handbook represent just some of the efforts being taken by the colossal U.S. national security establishment to deal with climate change symptoms.        

Military preparedness, however, still has room for improvement at home and abroad. First, extreme weather events and climate indicators, particularly extreme heat, threaten military infrastructure and personnel. Second, though the revelation that the U.S. military alone emits more greenhouse gases than most nations has led to the DoD to improving its focus on climate change to include strategies for adapting to more renewable energies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as stated in the DoD Sustainability and Implementation Report of 2019, the DoD could devote military research efforts towards the causes of climate change, rather than just impact. There are some early stage efforts to shift away from a sole focus on national security towards an environmental and human security paradigm, including the DoD Resources Security, Environmental Security, and Stability (RECESS) group which is dedicated to examining the U.S. response to environmental factors. While these types of projects will consider societal stability more than the past, the DoD’s focus remains heavily on what many call “traditional” security concepts related to military-on-military conflicts. While the U.S. military has taken initial steps to address climate change, it still has a long way to go on its mitigation and adaptation efforts, as well as shifting strategic mindsets towards integrating climate considerations into military decision making.

The Russian Federation: Seizing Opportunities, Focusing on Adaptation

 In the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, a ranking of nation’s efforts at combating climate change, the actions of the Kremlin were ranked 52nd out of 61 countries in its response to climate change, higher than the United States but still considered very poor. Russia’s environmental protection policies have been seen as exceedingly problematic, to the point that the Russian government has elected to portray a changing climate as a good thing.The Russian economy is critically dependent on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas — a powerful source of methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As a result, the Russian military’s focus is on adaptation.

Russia has launched significant efforts to transform its military mindset in recent years, seeing initiatives to upgrade 70 percent of its military equipment by 2020, add more personnel, and overhaul its defense industrial base. Within this force modernization, Russian military policymakers are including some new strategies for preparing to defend against climate change’s effects and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Domestically, the Russian government released a report at the beginning of 2020 detailing opportunities and risks of climate change, as well as its economic and social measures to address it. These range from dam building to the utilization of drought-resistant crops, and updating emergency evacuation plans.

In the Arctic, climate change has been a driving force for the Russian military focus on newly traversable maritime routes. With the Arctic Ocean becoming more accessible as ice melts, Russia has already begun to deploy radar and personnel to the thawing areas, in addition to the already sizable military presence of naval vessels, bases, and air defense installations. In areas under Russian control, they could potentially establish a maritime toll road where Russian naval vessels would escort or refuse entry to ships seeking to traverse the region. This could have major repercussions for China’s plans to develop these sea routes, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia also stands to gain access to oil and gas fields becoming increasingly accessible, with record-setting heat causing reported increases in the thawing permafrost — the frozen ground that covers more than 60 percent of Russia’s land surface.

And yet, climate change also poses considerable risks to Russia’s military interests. Russian summers are becoming increasingly hot, which is worsening the spread of wildfires in the Far East during the past several years, which has further enhanced the rate of permafrost thaw. Additionally, permafrost thaw, though making the environment more permissible for energy exploration in the future, has also started to damage infrastructure as the ground, once frozen solid for longer periods, is moving. There is also the concern that diseases once contained by the frozen ground will resurface and unleash themselves on the population. This was the case in 2015, when a small anthrax outbreak emerged reportedly from spores in a newly thawed animal carcass. Continuing to deploy forces and infrastructure to the Arctic without a viable plan to at least adapt to the changing geography and climate could compromise the sustainability of the Russian military’s Arctic strategy relative to the United States.

The People’s Republic of China: Protect At Home-Exploit Abroad

In September 2020, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping addressed the United Nations on climate change, stating that China would become carbon neutral by 2060. While the pledge appears positive to the international community, some question such statements given the country’s ongoing coal development

China faces a variety of climate-related risks, particularly to many of China’s largest cities along its densely populated eastern coast. The Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources reported in 2019 of increased rising sea levels, higher water temperatures, a warmer winter, and that typhoons will have larger impacts, which will require China’s coastal cities to invest considerable funds into resilience measures.

Efforts at the Chinese national military level tell a different story. The People’s Liberation Army has been undergoing an intense modernization initiative for some time. Xi is aiming to build a stronger, more efficient, and more technologically advanced military. China is spending more money on defense than in the past, with the goal of solidifying its global presence and becoming the leading maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, as of September 2020, China’s number of ships, missiles and air defenses have surpassed that of the United States. This military buildup has been particularly driven by the tension around Taiwan and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea

As alliance relations solidify in the Pacific, climate change is pushing some island nations towards China. The Solomon Islands in 2019 chose to reevaluate relations with Taiwan in exchange for normalized diplomatic relations with China, claiming climate change as a factor. While climate change may be the motivator, China will undoubtedly factor in the Solomon Islands’ friendly status in its military strategy. China also has eyes on establishing a Polar Silk Road to capitalize on shortened shipping routes from Asia to Europe. China has signaled its intentions to bolster its presence in the Arctic region, releasing a white paper in 2018 that identified itself as a near arctic state.

While territorial expansion and trade regulation are a partial motivator for China’s military ambitions, it is also concerned by growing competition over the world’s dwindling fish stocks, which are essential for its domestic food security. The South China Sea for instance, where China has been particularly aggressive in recent years, accounts for roughly twelve percent of annual global fish catch. The combined effect of rampant overfishing and climate change is already disrupting fish populations and habitats with new migration patterns and geographic routes, making competition more intense. China has chosen to address this by a more active naval stance, specifically with maritime militia, referred to as the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) by the U.S. DOD.” This militarization will continue to increase as climate change drives competition for fish stocks and could very well boil over into conflict. There is precedent here, with the fishing competitions escalating to the point of naval involvement.

While there have been some military initiatives to combat climate change, such as the 2018 deployment of a 60,000 strong regiment of Chinese soldiers to plant trees to combat the country's smog problems, to achieve its broader geopolitical objectives, China has shown its willingness to take advantage of climate change for its strategic advantage.

Military Preparations for Climate Change Depend on Politics

             In his 1832 work, On War, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “War is the continuation of policy by other means;” that war and a government’s military apparatus are merely an extension of its national politics. This insight is reflected in Chinese military strategy, and even in the writings of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, founder of the Chinese Communist Party. Though the United States, Russia, and China are different countries with different militaries, the political drivers at their most strategic level similarly determine all three of their militaries’ preparations. Evidently, politics also drive military preparations for climate change. For the United States, the political contention around climate change systematically affects how the DoD addresses and perceives the threat. In Russia, the economic prioritization of its fossil-fuel industry and possible control over territory leads the Kremlin to focus on adaptation and utilizing the advantages climate change provides. In China, climate change is a tool for its efforts to increase its reach, influence, and strength.

However, the political drivers within these three powerhouses do not just affect its own military preparations for a complex threat such as climate change. Despite U.S. dismay at the concept, the dominance of the U.S., Russian, and Chinese militaries continue to shape the world into increasingly divided spheres of influence. As smaller countries fall under those spheres, the actions of American, Russian, and Chinese leaders on climate change will surely dictate or, rather, influence how other nations shape their own policies. There will be mixed results of the various military policies that consider climate change. What will be consistent is that other countries will be watching, and reacting to the behaviors of these governments, both leaders in military strength, and drivers of the global fight against climate change.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

About the Author(s)

Justin H. Leopold-Cohen (@jleopoldcohen) is an Environmental Security Analyst with the Center for Development and Strategy (@thinkcds) a non-partisan 501(c)(3) think tank devoted to the research and discussion of the nexus between global development, sustainability, and security in an era of unprecedented change.