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Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: At war with climate change

Opinions Editor
Wednesday, April 5, 2017

It isn’t often that environmentalists cheer the views of Trump administration officials on climate change. Yet, that’s exactly what happened when, earlier this month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis revealed that he does not share President Trump’s climate skepticism. As ProPublica reported, Mattis emphasized the dangers of global warming in written exchanges with several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response,” Mattis wrote to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen D-NH after his Jan. 12 confirmation hearing. “If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

Advocates of eco-friendly, evidence-based policymaking seemed relieved by Mattis’ testimony. Shana Udvardy, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate preparedness specialist, called Mattis “the lone climate change soldier within this administration’s cabinet.” The Sierra Club tweeted that Trump and his budget director “should listen to their own secretary of defense, who says climate change is a threat right now.” And National Geographic published this blaring headline in February: “Who’s Still Fighting Climate Change? The U.S. Military.”

It is reassuring to know that Mattis and the armed forces, well-positioned to reign in the current administration’s worst excesses, can countervail Trump’s refusal to accept climate change as a threat to human civilization. But environmental activists shouldn’t get their hopes up. Far from being a potential ally in the crusade against climate change, the American military is more interested in accommodating an apocalyptic future — one in which a sweltering planet is convulsed in climate-induced conflict — than it is in addressing the root causes of global warming. A civilian might approach the mess of climate change more intuitively, with a heavier emphasis on domestic prevention instead of unreliable treaties or last-minute emergency measures. After all, environmental policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging the adoption of renewable energy could presumably forestall any doomsday tumult in the first place.

But from the military’s standpoint, the answer to climate change lies not at the intersection of social change and public policy, but within the framework of national security. In its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense found that the “pressures caused by climate change” are “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” And, according to the Department of the Army, these pressures in totality presage “an era of persistent conflict, which for the foreseeable future will place us in a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that faced during the Cold War.”

The military’s dystopian characterization of the geopolitical future is revealing. In the eyes of the military, climate change isn’t a problem because it will irreparably harm humanity and the environment. It’s a problem because these harms, culminating in overburdened governments and violent conflict, will eventually reach Americans.  This conceptualization of climate change — as a primarily national security concern, not a sociopolitical one — has indelibly shaped the military’s planned reaction to impending climatological chaos.

Consider the Center for Naval Analyses’ report, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.” In the executive summary, the Center’s Military Advisory Board, consisting of retired generals and admirals, warns that climate change can “disrupt our way of life” and “force changes in the way we keep ourselves safe and secure.” More specifically, the report predicts that the United States will have to “accept large numbers of immigrant and refugee populations” and “may be drawn more frequently” into burgeoning conflict zones as “weak and failing governments” struggle to maintain internal cohesion.

It is worth observing here the Americentrism of the board’s prediction. The report bemoans the larger responsibility the United States must assume in maintaining international order, but other countries face burdens that are exponentially more extreme. For example, a 2003 Pentagon study forecasted that, while American agriculture will suffer marginally, rising sea levels and coastal erosion will render most of Bangladesh “nearly uninhabitable,” unleashing a “drinking water and humanitarian crisis.” By elevating American climate security concerns above those of other nations, then, the military sees developing countries and their vulnerability to climate change as a problem to be begrudgingly managed, not an urgent human concern. In doing so, the military also implicitly prizes the preservation of a privileged few over others and demands a more interventionist foreign policy. 

And, as the report shows, the military hasn’t yet devised any ground-breaking or elegant strategies to counter global warming, apart from “assist(ing) nations at risk” and “setting targets for long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” This dearth of climate innovation is revealing. Green activists must understand that the military is more concerned with managing a planet ravaged by global warming and climate warfare — not preventing it, or encouraging any of the dramatic transformations needed to avoid imminent catastrophe. This is not to say that the Pentagon cannot contribute to the green movement by communicating strategic realities to skeptical congressmen, or by pioneering new fields of research in clean-energy technologies. In the long-term, though, the lens of “national security” cannot be the only answer to global warming.  Not only does such a worldview assign special importance to developed countries at the expense of poorer ones, but it also does little to prevent the conflicts and cataclysms that will ultimately arise from climate change. As such, it is unlikely that Mattis, no matter how enlightened or well-intentioned his congressional testimony, will deviate from his own outlook as secretary of defense and more meaningfully service the environmentalist cause.

Mattis’ recent comments about climate change should be taken with extreme caution. The military can’t solve all our problems, and as the brawl between sensible, science-based policy and personal whim rages on, we ought to defer to a fact we’ve long known: Only when our civilian leaders accept the reality of climate change — and not just the heads of our military — can we truly breathe a sigh of collective relief.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be found hugging a tree or reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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