The Pentagon on Climate Change

The Pentagon on Climate Change

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Geoff Haines-Stiles, writer/director of the ETOM programs, spoke with Rear Admiral David Titley, one of the contributors to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, about the Pentagon’s position on climate change. These are excerpts from Admiral Titley’s responses.

Task Force Climate Change was started in May 2009 by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughhead, to really initially answer the questions of “What and when does the Navy need to do, and what do we need to consider, for the Arctic?” But as we started to explore that question, we very rapidly realized that really the Arctic is simply the harbinger of much greater changes that will likely take place in the 21st century. And for our Navy to be ready and capable in the 21st century, we’re gong to need to both understand those changes, leverage the best science available to predict within the bounds of that science, and finally adapt to those changing conditions as, as it’s going to pertain to national security.

ETOM: The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review says, “Climate change will contribute to scarcity, disease, mass migration.” Why should the US military be concerned?

I think the reason those issues do concern the US military is because food and water scarcity, potential migrations, significant upheaval in countries, can destabilize, in fact, the very, very world order. If you take a look at where some of the very significant impacts of climate change can be, in Africa, in Southwest Asia, in southeast Asia, these are all areas of the world in which the US has enduring interests, in trade—frankly for simply human dignity—for stability. So climate change is one of the factors that can potentially impact that.

ETOM: As an oceanographer, what do you see the two different scenarios of the future of our oceans being?

If the world goes on the so-called “Business As Usual” scenario and we continue to use greenhouse gasses at what is now an accelerating rate as measured by the CO2 concentrations, and if we make decisions that really do not change that trajectory, for decades to come, it is not inconceivable that we would end up with a world with five, six, seven hundred parts or more per million of CO2. For what that would mean for the oceans, I think you have to think of not only how they warm, of how the Arctic changes from a mostly ice-covered or completely ice-covered at least right now, to one that has extensive time for ice-free. But part of what would very much concern me is what I call the “silent cousin” of global warming, and that’s ocean acidification …It turns out that about 40% or almost half of the CO2 that we’re putting into the atmosphere right now, doesn’t stay in the air. It actually gets absorbed by the ocean. And through a series of chemical reactions, it turns the ocean slightly more acidic.

…The “So What” is we’ve already seen a greater change in that amount of acidity, or acidification, in 150 years, than has been seen in several hundred thousand years …it turns out that all the ecosystems, the “critters” as I like to say—my guess my biologist-friends probably shudder as I say that—but they’ve all adapted and optimized themselves for a very specific water chemistry. And now, in the space of 100, 150 years, which is just a blink of an eye if you’re a living organism or a species, we’ve changed that. And it’s a real wild card as to how the ecosystems are going to adapt.

If they adapt, and if they adapt fairly well, we’re probably going to be OK. If they don’t adapt, and if …we start seeing major collapse in the ocean, one of the questions I would ask, really getting back to national security, is where do the one billion people who get their primary source of protein from, each day, where will they get that protein from?

Because we already see stresses in agriculture, we already see that rice yields for example, in Asia, may be impacted not so much by the daytime temperatures actually, by the fact that the nights aren’t cooling down as much. I’m not sure anyone expected that.

So it looks like there will be stresses on the land-based agriculture and if we really take out some of the ecosystems in the ocean, we’ve got a real problem.

ETOM: You’ve been quoted as saying that when you consider the future, you like to have the “cards in your pocket.” What did you mean by that?

I have talked about one way to look at the environment in which we operate, is “Nature’s casino.” …And by that I mean I’m going to count the cards. So yes, we have these random events, or semi-random events, but the good thing is, is the science has advanced enough in oceanography, glaciology, meteorology, that we have some skill, at some timeframes, of predicting this. And if we choose to use those projections, we can in fact alter the future by our behavior, we can alter the future in our favor, and that’s what I mean by counting the cards. The bad news is, there’s a whole lot more than 52 cards to count here. The good news is, nobody’s going to break my kneecaps if I get it right.


Roxana Tiron’s article from THE HILL provides an overview of the 20120 QDR, and why for the first time, it referenced climate change as a strategic consideration.

Pentagon review to address climate change for the first time

By Roxana Tiron

The Pentagon is addressing climate change for the first time in its sweeping review of military strategy.

The Pentagon is set to release the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) on Monday, along with the 2011 budget request.

In the review, Pentagon officials conclude that climate change will act as an “accelerant of instability and conflict,” ultimately placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.

...The Department of Defense (DoD) must complete climate change assessments at all military installations in an effort to prevent degradation of operational readiness, according to a draft of the QDR widely circulated in defense circles.

Operational readiness hinges on the military’s continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. More than 30 U.S. bases are already at elevated levels of risk from sea level rise, the document said quoting data from National Intelligence Council. Apart from the rising sea level, the Pentagon also has to assess the potential increase of severe heat waves or fire conditions could have on ground combat training.

The Defense Department also acknowledges in the draft QDR that climate change will affect the military’s operating environment, roles and missions. Climate-related changes include heavy downpours; rising temperature and sea level; rapidly retreating glaciers; thawing permafrost; and lengthening ice-free seasons in oceans, lakes or rivers.

Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change will have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and weakening of fragile governments, according to the draft QDR document.

The Pentagon’s review emphasizes the need for proactive engagement with countries whose military is the only institution with the capacity to respond to a large-scale natural disaster.

“DoD’s environmental security cooperative initiatives with foreign militaries represent a non-threatening way of building trust, sharing best practices on installations management and operating practices and developing response capacity,” according to the draft document.

Congress required in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that the Department of Defense consider the effects of climate change on all of its “facilities, capabilities and missions,” and called for the Department to incorporate such concerns into the QDR.

In order to comply with the law, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military services have all had to designate officials to study climate change, which has effectively created a new, nascent intellectual infrastructure of military and civilian officials who are well informed about the security consequences of climate change, according to a paper published in January by the Center for New American Security (CNAS).

“This intellectual infrastructure may well ensure that the study of the implications of climate change is institutionalized, keeping climate change fresh in the minds of DOD senior leadership,” said Christine Parthemore and Will Rogers in the CNAS paper.

In general, the Pentagon has focused more on energy security, as it presented a more pressing concern amid two major military operations and escalating fuel costs, according to CNAS.

Military services have already invested in non-carbon power sources, such as solar wind, geothermal, and biomass at domestic installations, as well as alternative vehicle fuels, including hybrid, electric, hydrogen and compressed national gas, according to the QDR draft.


The final QDR may be accessed here.

For David Titley’s updated thoughts on climate change, see a recent article by him and Robert Freeman, The U.S. Navy – Navigating Through a Changing Climate

Rear Adm. David Titley is now Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance and Director of the U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change.  Robert S. Freeman works for the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy.

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