Does Obama's Strategy Put Climate Change on Ice?
Speaking in May, not many weeks after the record snowfalls of Winter Storm “Juno” had finished melting in New England, President Obama devoted his commencement speech at one of the nation’s military academies to his continuing assertion that “climate change” is a serious threat to national security. Before graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, he urged: “climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security. And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act—and we need to act now.”
His exigent remarks reflect a central theme of the latest White House National Security Strategy (NSS) document that advances this idea and further places climate change on par with more traditional threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. At its release early this spring, a White House spokesperson went so far as to declare the dangers posed by climate change are now greater for average Americans than the threat of terrorism.
Because the National Security Strategy is the key document to delineate an administration’s major national security concerns and address its plans to manage them, it is meant to be the chief source of guidance for the Pentagon to formulate its own supporting strategy. This guidance drives the President’s chief military advisor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to develop the National Military Strategy (NMS) consistent with its contents. The NMS must describe the strategic environment in which military forces will operate, as well as specify the “ends, ways, and means” of the military’s strategy. Bottom line, the NMS is intended to be the Pentagon’s military response to underwrite the President’s national security policy.
In what may be his last significant strategy vector, General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a newly updated national military strategy, the first since 2011. The contents of the document should not surprise those familiar with the Pentagon. It is a concise, clear-eyed military assessment, unencumbered by politics. “Climate change” is also not mentioned anywhere in the document. Period.
The omission seems intentional, as if Pentagon military strategists reviewed their objective understanding of what “national security” really is, what is truly critical to national security, and more practically, what the nation can expect its military to do—and also not do.
All current national security threats—e.g., terrorism, cyber-attacks, piracy, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation, financial crises, dictatorships, nationalism, drug trafficking, revolutions, radical Islam, North Korea, etc.—will fester for the foreseeable future. None have a persuasive link to climate change, even as a worsening or varying effect. Climate change does not appear to animate the strategic calculations of such U.S. antagonists as Putin, Assad, Al-Shabaab, the Taliban, Kim, Rouhani, ISIL, al Qaeda, or Boko Haram. ISIL, which presently controls large swaths of inhospitable desert area in Syria and Iraq, has no considerations of “climate change” manifest in its world-view. Both of this past decade’s wars—Iraq and Afghanistan—do not have compelling environmental or climatological links. Arguably, no war in human history, modern or otherwise, has a causal relationship with climate change, despite the planet having experienced distinct periods of both warming and cooling.
What the new military strategy does talk about are the realities of an “unpredictable” global security environment. The U.S. military will need to reorganize itself and prepare for the possibility of endless war with militant groups like the Islamic State, and do so in an era of significant financial constraint. “We are more likely to face prolonged campaigns than conflicts that are resolved quickly … that control of escalation is becoming more difficult … and that as a hedge against unpredictability with reduced resources, we may have to adjust our global posture.” The strategy further calls out by name regional powers for aggressive military actions, states the military will continue its “rebalance” to the Pacific, and stresses the importance of remaining globally engaged with allies and partners—among a number of major issues discussed.
A Pentagon facing epic global challenges cannot afford to lose its focus on core national security priorities or its grasp of the root origins, causes, and drivers of human conflict. Military leaders cannot be distracted away from the true national security threats—i.e., antagonists willfully directing adversarial actions against this nation with the intent to do harm. The new National Military Strategy delivers a dose of confidence that the Pentagon understands these pragmatic realities and is correct to focus the new National Military Strategy—absent the politics and rhetoric—on those many and serious true security threats facing this nation in a troubled world.