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The Military’s Latest Enemy: Climate Change

To say that the United States military has its hands full right now is a bit of an understatement.

We might not have anywhere near the troop deployment levels reached during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and there have been modest cuts to the defense budget—but we still have a military that’s scattered all over the earth and tasked with solving just about every international problem that arises. It’s engaging the Islamic state by air and on the ground. Troops are helping with the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Our Naval forces are slowly pivoting to Asia in an attempt to counteract a potentially burgeoning Chinese hegemony. We’re in South Korea, watching the North. We’re guarding our own shores from Russian planes. And of course, we still have troops in Afghanistan.

Maybe all these concurrent commitments are why it came as such a surprise to some that the Defense Department would take time out of its busy schedule to release a plan on how to react to climate change, as it did last month. The plan is unprecedented. The reality of climate change was previously something the Pentagon only obliquely hinted at—for instance, in Chuck Hagel’s “Arctic Strategy” last year. It’s always a safe bet, though, that whenever a government agency somehow manages to address a complex issue with a modicum of common sense, there will be ideologues on hand to make hypocritical accusations of partisan pandering.

Called the “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” this new sixteen-page plan offers broad strategies to both anticipate new missions that climate change will create, and to cut down on the military’s own carbon footprint (PDF). In the foreword to the report, Secretary of Defense Hagel classifies climate change as a “force multiplier,” by which he means that climate change will exacerbate existing problems, now and in the future. Equipment will have to operate under extreme weather conditions. Supply chains will have to adapt to temperature and water level changes. Central governments will have to contend with the growing potential for severe natural disasters. Hagel’s roadmap does what any competent military plan should do: it realistically addresses changes in the physical environment and attempts to predict how those changes will affect future missions.

The roadmap is so straightforward and unflinching that its drawing ire from conservative ideologues was probably inevitable. A Wall Street Journal editorial took issue with the study and proposed changes to it, while framing it under the embarrassingly misleading subhead of “Hagel wants to retool the military to stop glaciers from melting”—as if the Army were about to become some sort of armed wing of the EPA. The piece leads with a long quote from General Ray Ordierno, Army chief of staff, questioning a proposed reduction in troop numbers during a time when “[w]e’ve seen Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, we’ve seen ISIS, we’ve seen some increased instability in other places.”

This flippant editorial evades discussing the plan’s details, or reasons why changes in operational environment are important considerations for military planners. Instead, it tries to make the case that, with limited martial resources (as if there’s some scenario in which resources are limitless), our focus on stopping terrorism will somehow be hindered by the distractions of solar panels, or separating our recycling, or something. The illogic culminates in one sentence: “Americans who might die at the hands of the Islamic State won’t care that Mr. Hagel is mobilizing against melting glaciers.” Willful misunderstanding of defense policy, faux pious indignation, and an appeal to irrationality that’s dressed up as common sense—this one reactionary opinion piece has it all.

Of course, Sec. Hagel isn’t sending Green Berets to the rain forest—at least not to save the trees. Most of the concerns that the Pentagon is trying to address in this report are kind of mundane issues here at home—things like management of all the land that houses military bases and training facilities. Hagel writes in the report:

We are almost done with a baseline survey to assess the vulnerability of our military’s more than 7,000 bases, instillations, and other facilities. In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, with houses the largest concentration of U.S. military sites in the world, we see recurrent flooding today, and we are beginning work to address the projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years.

So, this plan is not really about mobilizing against melting glaciers; it’s more like making sure our ships have viable facilities from which to launch bombs against ISIS. And the report doesn’t just focus on home, though. It casts a wider eye towards how a changing climate will affect defense missions in the future. Here’s another excerpt:

The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability.

Critics like the Journal’s editorial board may try to miscast this roadmap as partisan posturing, but it’s fairly obvious that the opposite is the case. The Defense Department has offered up a clear-eyed plan that both acknowledges the dangers that climate change poses to our military and extrapolates the changes it should make in response, all based on the most current and reputable evidence. To deny its value with empty ideological gesticulation is the worst kind of cynicism.