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Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks Explains How Climate Change Threatens National Security

As a “Historic, dangerous, prolonged and unprecedented” heat wave engulfs the western U.S, as well as parts of Russia and Europe, the top military brass was reminding us that climate change is also a fundamental national security challenge.

“The adverse impacts of climate change are already being felt across the Joint Force in terms of increased operational demands, adverse impacts on our installations and new requirements for equipment and formations able to operate in a world defined by climate change and as a contributing factor to regional instability,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said at a recent Congressional hearing on the Defense Department budget.

Here are the key ways climate change affects national security and is “already a major drain on our budget,” as detailed by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks at the ARPA-E 2021 Energy Innovation Summit:

1.     Natural disaster relief:  For decades, the Defense Dept. has been a key partner to local emergency management teams during natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes, and as climate change increases those disasters, more of the DoD budget and personnel has to be allocated  for stateside disaster relief – and away from core national security missions. Experts warn that the massive heat wave engulfing the west coast and the accompanying drought, highly risk more devastating wildfires like the ones that wiped out about 4.4 million acres and 17,700 structures in California in 2020, the worst on record by acres burned.

2.     “Contributing to instability…increasing risk of conflict”: Hicks said that climate change “puts our national security at risk by contributing to instability that drives requests for U.S. military-supported relief activities and actually increasing the risks of conflict, such as from civil wars and terrorism.”

3.     “Improving installations resilience” to extreme weather: “In the aftermath of Hurricane Sally (in Florida), I saw firsthand the devastating effects of climate change on our training facilities,” Hicks told the ARPA-E Summit. “I also heard from commanders of neighboring bases about the challenges that climate change poses to their installations and their ability to carry out critical missions. And these increased incidents of extreme weather and natural disasters siphon resources from our budget.” Hurricane Michael in 2019 “created billions of dollars’ worth of damage to Tyndall Air Force Base,” and $450 million in damage to the Pensacola base in 2020.

Dynamic map board showing power distribution through California’s electrical grids, California … [+] Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

There’s also their dependence on the national grid, which leave them “vulnerable to events like extreme weather and cyber-attacks,” Hicks said, adding that the DoD is increasing its use of microgrids, and renewable energy to “build differently and be more efficient and resilient.”

4.     Innovating energy and the supply chain to support missions and installations:  Transporting energy is a huge issue for the military, from a threat to troop safety when they transport large fuel trucks to power bases in dangerous conflict zones, to the unnecessary weight of heavy batteries in their backpacks. Therefore, the DoD is investing in military-grade electric vehicles, and lighter and smaller renewable energy ways to keep troops powered in theatre (such as solar-powered backpacks Marti Elder told me about on my podcast previously). The DoD has the second largest vehicle fleet in the U.S. federal government, 170,000 vehicles, so this is big.  She stressed how they intend for these innovations to improve efficiencies and effectiveness too.

5.     “Climate-informed decision making”: As a result of the outsized impact climate change now has on national security, Hicks told ARPA-E that, “climate considerations must become an integral element in resource allocation and our operational decision-making process…(including updating) our threat assessments…(w)arfighting concepts, regional and country engagement plans, and logistics planning.”

To do so, the DoD established a Climate Working Group and developed a Climate Assessment Tool to collect climate change-related data, develop projections and plan for potential hazards.

Hicks also reminded us, as did her bosses, Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley, that every dollar and hour the DoD has to spend on repairing installations damaged by climate change-induced extreme weather – or on assisting local emergency teams during a natural disaster – drains resources that would otherwise go to defending the country from various geopolitical dynamics, such as China, Russia, and other aggressors like ISIS.

What do you think?

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