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The National Security Impacts of Climate Change

The Center for Climate and Security (CCS), the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, held a briefing discussing the role of climate change as a "threat multiplier" in the geopolitical landscape and the implications that has for U.S. national security. The briefing explored the risk management and planning considerations facing the Department of Defense (DOD) as it seeks to maintain force readiness and bolster infrastructure resilience. The panel also discussed the need for investments in preventive measures today to prepare for future needs concerning disaster assistance, the Arctic, and the displacement of vulnerable populations due to climate change. Speakers for this forum included members of the CCS Advisory Board.

As a "threat multiplier," climate change serves as a contributing factor to amplify and worsen stressors that can lead to conflict, such as food and water scarcity, poverty, political instability, and social tensions. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, DOD designated climate change as a crucial factor to consider in future national security planning, stating that "climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked." DOD has worked to better integrate these risks across its operations, while reducing its carbon footprint and adapting its facilities to withstand sea level rise and extreme weather events. The institutionalization of climate policies has transformed how DOD does business and has resulted in a more resilient and agile military, enabling it to meet its mission goals more efficiently and effectively. These policies have been adopted across the Department's five service branches.




Hon. John Conger, Former Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller); Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies

  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently reaffirmed the threat of climate change to national security, confirming that the Department of Defense (DoD) will continue to be committed to preparing and adapting to climate change.
  • “There’s a lot you can do to mitigate risk once you acknowledge the risk exists.”
  • When discussing potential budget restraints on climate-related DoD spending, Conger replied that the DoD budget is more about how money is spent rather than what is it spent on, and that although there is no climate change line in the DoD budget, it will naturally seek to spend its money in a way that is cognizant of current and future climate-related threats.


Hon. Sherri Goodman, Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security); Senior Fellow, Wilson Center

  • National security policymaking has a long bipartisan tradition, dating back to environmental concerns in the Cold War period.
  • Science, research, technology, and development are core components of national security and undergird our understanding of the threats we face. Goodman cited the billions of dollars spent to prepare and prevent a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, and said that climate change has equally high consequences and is a higher probability threat.
  • In the last two decades, it’s become very clear that climate change is a significant threat to America’s national security. One example of this is in the Arctic, where a whole new ocean has been opened up due to rapid melting of sea ice. This now requires an increased capability to operate there to respond to a potential rush for resources that would bring both opportunities and risk.
  • U.S. military forces need to be positioned to respond to an increasing number of climate-related risks, such as sea level rise and heavy storms in the Asia-Pacific as well as desertification and drought in the Middle East.
  • Another major concern is the security of military installations at home, particularly along the Atlantic coast. They are at risk due to a combination of sea level rise, storm surge, and coastal erosion. The infrastructure of these military bases needs to be hardened and secured against these threats. Since these bases are part of the community (and depend on it for key supplies and manpower), this requires the building of more resilient communities.
  • Goodman stated that while Sec. Mattis’s statements on the record in support of climate action are important, they need to be communicated throughout DoD and heard “on Capitol Hill, at all levels of command, in all parts of the services, and throughout the U.S. government” so agencies can continue to plan.


General Ron Keys, United States Air Force (Ret); Former Commander, Air Combatant Command

  • Keys explained the main reasons why DoD cares about climate change are (1) mission effectiveness, (2) battlespace awareness (“knowing the threats to our ability to operate”), and (3) "survive to operate" (knowing “we’ll get hit” but still able to operate). Forward planning on the part of DoD in response to climate change is essential because “it’s our job to be ready to mobilize and deploy,” no matter what the situation is.
  • Another major impact of climate change is the need to train service members for climate-related events (such as search-and-rescue in rough waters). This specialized training takes time and reduces the personnel available for other critical tasks (including combat). Unfortunately, resources are limited and are likely to remain so, making hard choices necessary.
  • Discussing the impact of climate change on humanitarian crises around the world, Keys warned that “we’re probably fast approaching the day when [such crises] are here, not over there.”
  • There is a great threat posed by “smaller storms starting from a higher base,” such as in the case of Langley Air Force Base, home of the F-22 Raptors, where a nor’easter several years brought multiple feet of flooding (comparable to the impacts of a hurricane) even though water levels had changed only a few inches.
  • Better communications and cooperation are needed to address climate change. Although many people acknowledge this, progress has been “painfully slow.”
  • Keys talked about how defense spending is framed around “mission effectiveness” rather than climate change or renewable energy. Embracing renewables isn't a goal in and of itself: the goal is to achieve energy security.
  • Keys believes that smarter, climate-aware infrastructure development will be commercially-driven as insurance and reinsurance companies will be less willing to provide insurance to infrastructure that is not designed to be resilient.


Brigadier General Gerald Galloway, United States Army (Ret); Former Dean of the Academic Board, U.S. Military Academy at West Point

  • In response to a question about how DoD would operate if politics weren’t involved, Galloway responded that “the military would be doing the exact same thing they’re doing right now,” citing old field manuals that identified weather and terrain as the most significant aspects of battlefield combat.
  • Climate change will have a multitude of effects on military operations and planning, including how the temperature will affect troops training outside, how future military equipment will be designed and tested to withstand changing climates, and the ability to move and acquire materials for the military.
  • There is a concern not only for U.S. military infrastructure but also for partner bases around the world that the United States depends on to complete its missions.
  • Galloway talked about the importance of building “for the future, not for today,” giving as an example the recent construction of levees in New Orleans that used the projected 2053 sea water elevation instead of 2015 levels.
  • It is also important to explore what cheaper and longer-lasting materials can be used when constructing new infrastructure. Harnessing natural defenses (such as mangroves) can be more cost-effective than pouring concrete to build sea walls.
  • When asked for examples of non-coastal climate challenges, Galloway mentioned stronger storms and temperature rises, particularly the impact such temperature rises would have on asphalt and other infrastructure.


Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, United States Navy (Ret); Former Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group TWO

  • “DoD has a long history of taking climate impacts seriously because they create and intensify operational risks and global instability. This is a real threat, not an imagined threat based on a political agenda.”
  • Climate change adaptation requires a “whole of government” approach and the defense community needs the opportunity to execute its resiliency plans without a constant shifting of perspectives, words, strategies, and impediments.
  • Phillips pointed out that coastal military instillations are at the most risk of climate change, citing the unique vulnerability of Hampton Roads, which is experiencing sea level rise at twice the rate of other east coast locations. This poses a serious threat to regional and national military readiness as there are almost 29 separate federal entities within the region, including Naval Station Norfolk, the only aircraft carrier construction and refueling facility in the country, and one of only two submarine construction facilities in the country, as well as Air Force, Army, and NATO command bases, NASA facilities, and more.
  • Resilience and adaptation cannot be limited to protecting a single base, facility or city. Indeed, 65 percent of Hampton Roads residents travel to another city to work. This multitude of intersecting challenges makes Hampton Roads the “crucible for the entire range of [climate-related] changes.”
  • We are beginning to see a paradigm shift in infrastructure planning, with many buildings now being designed with longer than the next 50 years in mind.


We thank the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and the David Rockefeller Fund for their support of this event.

This briefing was the third in a series in partnership with the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) on "Building Resilient and Secure Infrastructure." Other briefings will examine city initiatives, building materials and methods, the role of national labs and federal R&D spending, coastal resilience, and national security.

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