Climate resilience comes to the Pentagon

the latest guest post from George Leopold:

The old saw in the U.S. military holds that many of its members don’t care much about climate change but weather affects everything it does. As the Arctic region’s environment changes, and with it the security situation at the top of the world, that attitude also appears to be evolving.

Chuck Hagel, the U.S. defense secretary, laid out an Arctic security strategy in a Nov. 22 speech at a conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The U.S. strategy focuses on something relatively new in the world, akin to the Strait of Malacca separating Malaysia and Indonesia and connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. It’s called the Northern Sea Route.

Given the growing international tensions over an increasingly ice-free Arctic, it’s telling that Hagel and the Defense Department are using the Russian designation for the region rather than European, the Northeast Passage.

The opening of the Arctic due to climate change has resulted in an unprecedented increase in human activity. Hagel estimates that traffic along the Northern Sea Route will increase tenfold this year.

The “challenge of global climate change, while not new to history, is new to the modern world,” Hagel told the Halifax International Security Forum. “Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters – all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.”

Hagel cited the recent devastation in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan. With most of the infrastructure wiped out in coastal cities like Tacloban, it was logistics provided by the U.S. military that finally delivered and distributed meaningful amounts of food and clean water to the region.

Meanwhile, DOD’s Arctic strategy “reflects America’s desire to work closely with allies and partners to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the [Arctic] region,” Hagel continued.

The region includes more than 22,000 U.S. military personnel and another 5,000 reservists. It is also home to major Navy installations that operate a fleet of vessels that include nuclear submarines. The Navy released its Arctic roadmap in 2009, and U.S. military commands in the region were realigned in 2011 to reflect the accelerating changes in the Arctic.

As tensions grow with Russia and China (which has asserted that it, too, is an Arctic nation) over issues like energy rights, an Arctic Council has been formed to promote engagement and cooperation. It includes Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Not surprisingly, DOD’s eight-point Arctic strategy begins by reasserting U.S. sovereignty over territorial waters around Alaska and preserving freedom of the seas. But it also calls for public-private partnerships to improve understanding of what’s happening to the Arctic environment.

“This is the first new frontier of nautical exploration since the days of Ericsson, Columbus, and Magellan, and it provides a clear opportunity to work together to ensure we have accurate observations, maps, and models of the Arctic’s atmospheric, oceanic, and sea ice conditions,” Hagel noted.

The plan also addresses how the Navy must adapt its operations to account for shrinking sea ice in the Arctic.

Hagel has inherited a mess at the Pentagon as the Obama administration attempts to wind down the longest war in American history. The defense secretary also must decide how best to allocate scarce resources as a consequence of budget sequestration. Given those realities, it’s heartening to see Hagel thoughtfully addressing the consequences of climate change for one of the largest enterprises on Earth.

Hagel closed with this: “Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict. We cannot erase this history. But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic.”

-George Leopold


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