National Security & Defense

No, Joe Biden, Climate Change Is Not the Greatest Threat Facing America’s Military

U.S. Army soldiers with the 551st Military Police Company practice room clearing during African Lion 2021 multinational exercises near Cap Draa Maneuver Area, Morocco, June 8, 2021. (Sergeant Nathan Baker/US Army)
Political messaging for Biden’s donors and supporters should not be put before military readiness.

The Biden administration’s focus on climate change at the Defense Department is a case of misplaced priorities rooted in myths. The president, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all have put climate change on par with China and Russia as threats. Austin said in January that climate change would factor into most of the Defense Department’s military planning, including the next iteration of the National Defense Strategy. The Pentagon will examine its “carbon footprint,” Austin said.

President Biden has made climate change, not Chinese and Russian aggression, his top priority. The Defense Department is proposing to dedicate $617 million to “fight” climate change in the president’s 2022 budget proposal to Congress. President Biden explains:

When I went over to the tank in the Pentagon when I was first was elected vice president with President Obama, the military sat us down and let us know what the greatest threats facing America were, the greatest physical threats. This is not a joke. You know what the Joint Chiefs told us the greatest physical threat facing America was? Global warming. There will be significant population movements, fights over land, millions of people leaving places because they’re literally sinking below the sea in Indonesia, because of the fights over what is arable land anymore.

Thus far, there’s little empirical evidence to support the notion that fossil-fuel emissions contribute to migration, terrorism, or other military threats to the U.S., its interests, or those of its allies. Emphasizing climate change either deliberately or incidentally ignores other reasons for mass migration, including political corruption, poor governance, and poor farming and irrigation methods. It’s an example of how a propaganda narrative can override provable facts.

Stories about Africa often feed the climate-change narrative. In Africa, poor farming methods and irrigation in the Sahel — the area of the continent stretching from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east — bear a larger blame for desertification and the exploitation of the region’s water crisis by ISIS and al-Qaeda. This has contributed to the flow of refugees.

This process of rapid local climate change and desertification has been discussed at least since the 1970s, when prevailing science warned of a coming ice age. The United Nations held a 1977 conference that attributed ongoing droughts and desertification in the Sahel region to catastrophic mismanagement of water resources and destructive farming methods. Not much has changed on the ground since then. A 2015 Nigerian-government report funded by the European Union found that the drying up of Lake Chad was due to poor governance of the ways water from the lake was being used to irrigate crops in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

“The control of the use of water in the Lake Chad basin in Nigeria is inadequate and weak,” the report said. “Assessment of the environmental impacts of governmental policies and programs of water resource management in the Lake Chad basin is insufficient.” Nevertheless, the World Economic Forum pushes the narrative that global warming is responsible for the rapid evaporation of Lake Chad over the past 60 years.

An article in the British journal Nature also blames global climate change and suggests that it has contributed to terrorism:

Even though the current conflict was triggered by violence linked to the armed groups known as Boko Haram, the crisis has deep roots in longstanding challenges. Widespread inequality and decades of political marginalization have instilled and entrenched [a] sense of exclusion in the region. But several observations demonstrated that these challenges are further exacerbated by climate change. Climate change is widely accepted to be a “threat multiplier” which exacerbates existing risks and worsen[s] already fragile situations, making it harder to promote peace, adaptation and sustainable development.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) also ignores the connection between poor governance and the Sahel’s environmental catastrophe and blames global climate change. “Climate change, food shortages, poverty, ungoverned spaces, historic grievances, and other factors make the continent also home to 14 of the world’s 20 most fragile countries,” AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend told Congress in April.

Food shortages, poor governance, and tribal grievances encourage jihadist activity; global climate change does not. ISIS and al-Qaeda thrive in areas of poor governance, and apparently so do environmental catastrophes for which no government claims responsibility.

Irrigation issues and teaching proper farming techniques would clearly be better addressed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and USAID, not the U.S. Department of Defense. Similarly, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences attributes erosion of coastal land in that country more to local factors than to global warming and rising sea levels.

Political narratives drive the agenda, not a critical examination of the empirically testable facts. The same goes for the barely noticeable impact of implementing the Paris Climate Agreement, which would reduce global temperatures by two-tenths of a degree Celsius.

In the Arctic, the Defense Department ought to be prioritizing access denial against Russia and China by deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, building icebreakers, and deploying other assets to defend American interests instead of fussing over the kind of fuel being used by combat vehicles.

A Defense Department press release about President Biden’s 2022 defense budget stressed the importance of electric vehicles in the military’s response to global warming. However, a study conducted by the office of the U.S. Army’s deputy assistant secretary for research and technology could poke a hole in the strategy. This report found that the goal of achieving zero emissions in Army vehicles by 2035 is impractical on the battlefield, National Defense magazine reported.

It found that all-electric vehicles are not yet practical and recommended that the Army should stick with its old standbys. “JP-8 [jet fuel], diesel and biodiesel will be the primary source of battlefield energy and power for the foreseeable future,” John Luginsland, the committee’s co-chair and senior scientist and the principal investigator at Confluent Sciences (a research-and-development firm), told National Defense. “The combination of energy density and power is unmatched.”

This focus on climate change will do little to advance military readiness or stabilize places such as the Sahel, where poor governance damages the environment. It will not deter jihadists from continuing their reigns of terror. Nor will it do anything to check America’s top adversaries.

Climate-change posturing has little or no positive real-world impact and puts political messaging to Biden’s donors and supporters before military readiness.

John Rossomando is a senior analyst for defense policy at the Center for Security Policy and is a contributor to The National Interest

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