June 10, 2020 12:25PM

Reflections on “Climate Change and National Security: Balancing the Costs and Benefits”

By James Knupp

Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts assessed and put in context the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China to terrorism and climate change.

As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato is republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events. You can view previous entries here, here, here, and here, as well as on the Project on Threat Inflation homepage.

This week’s entry comes from Mark G. Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Newcastle, and frequent Cato contributor. His latest book, Climate Adaptation Engineering: Risks and Economics for Infrastructure Decision‐​Making (Elsevier 2019), deals with many of the same subjects as his chapter in A Dangerous World?

A January 2019 report prepared by the Department of Defense opens with “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD) missions, operational plans, and installations.” This is a sensible statement of fact — all potential threats need careful consideration. What is striking about this report is the measured and methodical approach it takes to existing and future climate vulnerabilities facing the US military. Adaptive planning, installation resiliency, climate resiliency, and adaptation strategies feature prominently in the DoD report. My chapter echoes many of these sentiments — climate change impacts will gradually accrue over time, the military can adapt to changing circumstances, and bespoke adaptation can ameliorate many of the effects of climate change. One example cited in the DoD report was that the risk of flash flooding at Fort Hood, Texas, was dealt with by replacing the two most dangerous low water crossings with bridges. The report also recommends that new developments should be constructed at a minimum elevation of 10.5 feet above sea level. These practical actions are what we call “climate adaptation engineering” — my 2019 book on this topic delves into how this can be achieved using rational and measured assessment of impacts, risks, costs and benefits.

The report also notes that climate impacts are already “fully integrated into planning efforts” and capacity‐​building efforts “will adapt to a variety of trends and projections.” The impact of climate change on DoD’s operations seems modest. For example, increased maritime traffic in the Arctic will require additional search and rescue resources, and “further military support to civil authorities to enable peaceful opening of the Arctic as access increases” with “enhanced opportunities for cooperation with allies and partners.” To be sure, there will be challenges for national security. However, many will be manageable given that the timeframe for climate impacts is decades into the future.

With an annual budget of $700 billion I predicted that the DoD have ample resources to deal with a changing climate and shifting priorities over time. Tellingly, the DoD report closes with “resources for assessing and responding to climate impacts are provided within existing DoD missions, funds, and capabilities and subsumed under existing risk management processes.” Hence, the conclusion from my chapter that annual military expenditures may need to increase by about $3 billion (or 0.4 percent of budget outlays) still holds, and it is reasonable that this cost can readily be absorbed into the existing DoD budget.

Unlike the rhetoric of some commentators and activists, there is no mention in the report of climate change being an existential threat to the United States.

Much of this chapter still holds today. Most doom and gloom climate change predictions are based on unmitigated CO2 emissions to 2100. Many developed countries have already reduced their emissions, and the 2016 Paris Agreement is a step in the right direction to further reducing emissions. There is room for optimism that the world is less dangerous than we fear.

I thank Chris Preble, John Mueller and the Cato Institute again for inviting me to be part of their stimulating project and welcome any comments.

-Mark G. Stewart