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Shifting the climate security narrative: How the Department of Defense can lead

Afghanistan, September 2020

Competing demands, obscurely funded projects, and a general preference for short-term talking points over long-term capacity building continue to stymie federal response. An actionable strategy will require a renewed commitment, an emphasis on equity and transparency, and a minor legislative change.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) is a key part of the equation. It must recognize its leadership role and develop evidence-based policies. Incorporating knowledge that reflects the academic rigor of international experts who study climate change—as well as the broader political and socio-economic influences that contribute to unstable and fragile states—is essential.

Through the integration of emerging technology, evidence-backed research, accountable funding streams, and cooperative foreign policy, the US Department of Defense is poised to lead the fight in a war that many observers did not anticipate.    

Changing the Conversation

Climate security discourse is a conversation about effective governance, equitable resource allocation, and the security of vulnerable populations. As a significant energy consumer and a critical policymaker on the international stage, the Department of Defense is in a leadership position at a time of emerging significance. And, as a leader, the DOD must challenge the current narrative of climate change.

Yet the wrong conversation can prove ineffective. The initial language in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review articulated climate change effects as “threat multipliers,” but the existing climate “stressors” across the globe have arguably increased and compounded in the last nine years. So why has the campaign narrative narrowed to a more singular threat

Climate change, climate resilience, and climate security are talking points within the military and national security spheres that envision a looming adversary to be fought. This adversary requires U.S. commanders to fortify their bases, enhance off-grid power sources, and anticipate the need for higher seawalls. This unseen opponent of climate impacts lurks behind this conflict, promoting unrest as it dries up agricultural soils and creates seams of opportunity for extremism.  

Yet while the visual is consistent with the training and warfighter mentality of the US military, this discourse is limited and thus will yield limited success. Scholars working across several academic fields urge a more nuanced and comprehensive view and warn against this tendency to view climate change as a sole perpetrator rather than a factor amongst many that leads to instability.

The Department of Defense would be well-served to appreciate the interests and power dynamics that come into play with international partners committed to climate change mitigation efforts like the Paris Agreement. These are not efforts to undermine the ambitions of the international community. Rather, they seek to encourage a broader comprehension of conflict and security in the time of universal planetary changes and to utilize existing mechanisms to enable long-term institutional change.   

Unjust Resource Allocation as a Foundation for Conflict

Being a global leader requires a fundamental recognition that the dark and lurking adversary may not be our changing climate, but an uneven and unjust distribution of power related to the governance of natural resources and the environment. This means that the Department of Defense, as a significant player in the U.S. capitalist economy, should remain wary of climate change answers that come with a commercial price tag.

Researchers from the Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy institute, have cast a critical eye on the present discourse emerging from both the US Department of Defense and large for-profit corporations like Shell, which play outsized roles in how climate change is perceived and approached.

We believe that when the world’s foremost military power and one of the world’s most powerful corporations start predicting the future in ways that dovetail, it is worthwhile listening to what they say. The way they forecast the future also influences how these powerful institutions are now shapingpolicies to deal with climate impacts, which has huge and still largely undiscussed consequences for the rest of us

- Transnational Institute

One of the insidious consequences of the current economic approach is “green grabbing”—the appropriation of land and water resources under the guise of climate change mitigation. This practice undermines many international efforts to combat climate change, and it also exacerbates existing political, social, and economic imbalances by taking resources from some of the most vulnerable populations. 

Similarly, “green agendas” and “green colonialism” are concepts that often rely on inequitable post-colonial processes to determine resource allocations. In researching the causality of conflict in agricultural or subsistence-based regions, the uneven distribution, or redistribution, of natural resources by political elites has already created the foundation for volatility. Add in the disruptive variability of weather patterns that were previously assumed stable and the rhetoric of insurmountable resource depletion, and exacerbation is a good bet.  

Decisions in this context, which might possibly lead to conflict, are manifold. For instance, extract “clean” natural gas from within a critical fish breeding ground, build a hydroelectric dam that stems the flow of water to rural areas downstream, or designate unregistered land for only “green” industries. Do so and be prepared for vulnerable populations, especially women and girls, to struggle with Maslow’s basic needs for survival. Physiological requirements for food and water become strong motivators of human action, unrest, and conflict. 

Accountable Mechanisms Build Strong Global Communities

Understanding the intertwined dynamics of governance, power, and the disruptive variability of climate change is the first step to increasing global security. The second step is to avoid short-term solutions that create metrics but accomplish little else.

Fortunately, the Department of Defense already has an avenue to support its strategic climate narrative: institutional capacity building. Framed first in 1998, institutional capacity building employs an integrated approach with a community of actors “…to engage in collective action to deal with issues of common concern.” 

In the field of academic scholarship, institutional capacity building emphasizes the need for consistent engagement amongst parties over several years to understand the stakeholders, the baseline capacities, and the change factors that will contribute to growth and development.[i]  When functioning correctly, institutional capacity building is a planning and change process that supports mutual gains for individuals, communities, and countries.   

Institutional capacity-building is also a well-known concept within the health sector, but it did not become a formal term in the national defense dialogue until 2017. As codified in 10 U.S.C. 332 and 10 U.S.C. 333, institutional capacity building is triggered when training and equipment are provided by the U.S. Department of Defense to foreign (friendly) security forces. In coordination with the U.S. State Department and the regional Combatant Commands, these authorities provide a critical avenue for military-to-military relationships and joint professionalization.

Currently, there are nine specific mission areas included under this funding and implementation mechanism: (1) Counterterrorism operations; (2) Counter-weapons of mass destruction operations; (3) Counter-illicit drug trafficking operations; (4) Counter-transnational organized crime operations; (5) Maritime and border security operations; (6) Military intelligence operations; (7) Air domain awareness operations; (8) Operations or activities that contribute to an existing international coalition operation that is determined by the Secretary to be in the national interest of the United States; (9) Cyberspace security and defensive cyberspace operations.7

In assessing the potential security impacts of climate change: climate should be number ten on this list of mission areas.  

Arguably, 10 U.S.C. 332 provides for institutional capacity building outside of the requirements attached to 10 U.S.C. 333—including a broad category for “assessing organizational weaknesses and establishing a roadmap for addressing shortfalls.” But the vagueness of this language creates a mire. And for those who do not share Secretary Austin’s call to arms against climate change, this mire and its challenges are providing a welcome fuzziness. 

First, if Combatant Commands request capacity-building assistance under the broader 10 U.S.C. 332 language, climate-related programs are not the likely priority. (This is the disconnect between defense rhetoric and tangible action.) Any such requests have fallen short of the funding line. Second, a climate focus also requires a high level of program and stakeholder integration with a recognition of underlying resource allocation inequities. Creating a one-off, stove-piped program without the added impetus of training and equipment would suffice only to satisfy the metrics. 

And, finally, if climate security is an “existential threat,” it should stand alone as a significant category for training, equipment, and institutional capacity building. Climate-related impacts are felt in every one of the nine mission areas—and they are already destabilizing security forces throughout the world. Rather than debate whether or not climate security may be included as a tangential aspect of an existing program, a change in the legislative language would align strategy and operations with the significance of the threat. It would also capitalize on the use of a relatively new, but encouraging, mechanism to enhance critical capacities in the face of growing instability.  

Institutional Capacity Building as an Access Point for Leadership

Institutional capacity building is an entry point for militaries to cooperate in identifying climate-related challenges and developing integrated solutions. Consistent with the Department of Defense’s strategic message, adding a climate-related operation to 10 U.S.C. 332-333 reflects the increasingly disruptive and unpredictable impacts of climate change. The abruptness of the physical ups and downs of tangible climate impacts is one concern, but there is also longer-term variability of weather events (no longer considered “patterns”) that carry with them disparate and often deadly implications. 

Perhaps more importantly, enabling this mechanism to directly foster climate-focused conversations among security forces, defense institutions, and regional organizations will incorporate more of the academic conversation (and its corresponding holistic considerations) into the national security narrative. The Global Security and Defense Index on Climate Change indicates that over 70% of the nations in the world view climate change as a “serious national security issue” rather than a purely environmental issue. Thus, it is (and will increasingly be) national security forces that respond to typhoons and combat the criminal organizations and terrorists who capitalize on the growing discontent in rural, agriculture-based communities. It is the security forces who must race to formulate a military response to climate impacts.

Unlike the traditional military lens used for mission planning and execution, the implementation of institutional capacity-building programs falls largely to the Defense Security

Cooperation University and its two components: the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies and the Institute for Security Governance. While not lacking for retired military members, these two components do offer a more diverse cadre of experts with experience in academia, non-governmental organizations, and international legal bodies. When they have the correct resources, these experts are equipped to identify many of the early warning signs that often lead to state instability and conflict, including the unjust distribution of natural resources. 

Those who implement institutional capacity-building programs are also well-situated to engage foreign defense institutions, which often hold—or can access—political power in these nations.  These engagements create opportunities for civil organizations to get to the proverbial table where vulnerable populations often raise resource allocation concerns before the emergence of conflict or natural disasters.  

Even a cursory review of the data related to conflict and natural disasters highlights the disproportionate impacts often felt by women and girls when they occur. In the words of USAID Administrator Samantha Power, “Climate change is sexist; our response shouldn’t be.” As they develop a baseline for climate security and map out the relevant stakeholders, the implementers of institutional capacity-building programs could intentionally create space for women-initiated gender considerations tied into the roles, norms, and resources that already render them unequal.  

Strengthening the Global Commons

Falling prey to talking points will not meet Secretary Austin’s strategic vision, nor will it effectuate an actionable response to climate change. Expanding present legislation to include climate in the security cooperation domain will provide a means for accountable, meaningful, and collaborative international action. 

Like most good ideas, rhetoric means little without transparent funding and recognition of the underlying issues. While institutional capacity building cannot effectuate the reallocation of natural resources, it can help the international community change the narrative and redefine the obligations of those with political, social, and economic power.


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