Factoring Risks of Climate Change a Wise Part of U.S. Military’s Strategy

Written by Bob Barnes on . Posted in Learn

Early in my career as an Army officer, I learned that “hope is not a plan.” I also learned that waiting for certainty on the battlefield is a sure recipe for failure. 

In the early 1970s, when I commanded a nuclear-weapons unit in Europe as a small part of the U.S. and NATO force confronting the Warsaw Pact, there were some things about which we were certain. We knew that the Soviet Union had the capability to invade Western Europe and to use nuclear weapons during any operations.  

What we didn’t know with certainty was their intent, or the full impact of any invasion, or precisely how, and how well, we would respond. We did know that we were spending hundreds of billions of dollars to reduce the risk of nuclear war through deterrence, and many billions of dollars on intelligence, training, and other operations to reduce the uncertainties with which we were confronted.

At its core, national security strategy is about managing risks in uncertain situations and taking actions and making investments now to respond to and prepare for risks that may not materialize for years or even decades. 

This long experience with managing risks may be why there is a growing consensus in the military and the intelligence community that uncertainty about the scope and timing of climate change does not negate the need to take action to prepare for the range of potential outcomes, or the need for investments to reduce those uncertainties and withstand the outcomes that do come to pass.

Studies commissioned by the U.S. Navy and the National Academy of Science have concluded that climate change is a “threat multiplier” for which the sea service and other branches of the military must prepare. Many other security studies and assessments in the US, Europe, and elsewhere have reached similar conclusions, using a risk management framework, while other recent studies estimate the economic costs of taking no action on climate change.

Among the studies that approach climate change with a strategic risk assessment framework (similar to that used by the insurance industry) is a 2010 study by Sandia National Laboratories, the Albuquerque-based center for national security research: Assessing the Near-Term Risk of Climate Uncertainty: Interdependencies Among the U.S. States.

Using projected precipitation and temperature conditions between 2010 and 2050 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the study used state level hydrological data and regional economic models to compare the effects of climate change across U.S. state economies and to specific industries in the next 40 years.

Only six of the continental 48 states experience gains in GDP as a result of climate change, the study found, and the GDP losses exhibited by the 42 other states indicate “what it would be worth to avoid climate change even within short-term planning horizons…In Texas, for example, there is a risk of losing about $137 billion over the 40-year period…”

The authors of the Sandia study argue that waiting for science to provide all the answers about climate change may mean missing the chance to effectively deal with the problem and avoid future costs and damages: “The greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. It is the uncertainty associated with climate change that validates the need to act protectively and proactively.”

In an article on the study, science writer John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal writes that the military is accustomed to planning for “high-consequence, low-probability events,” such as nuclear explosions or terrorist attacks. Uncertainty entails the possibility of very bad outcomes, Fleck writes, and this is why national security research is considering what climate change might mean in unstable parts of the world for military operations and preparedness.

Even as we compile records of the hottest years and decades on record, observe precipitation patterns changing, Arctic ice cover decreasing, and sea levels gradually rising, we cannot say with precision how much further these conditions will progress or precisely by when.

The fundamental policy question facing us is whether to act despite the uncertainties, or simply cross our fingers and wait, insisting on complete certainty and hoping that we will win the bet. Our answer to that question, and whether we act now or simply wait and hope is perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all.

“Hope is not a plan” was fundamentally true when I was a young lieutenant. It remains fundamentally true today.

Bob Barnes is a retired Brigadier General, U.S. Army, who now works as a senior policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy focusing on our partnership with the Department of Defense.

U.S. Navy photo by Kelly Schindler, (The Navy celebrated Earth Day, April 22, 2010, with a supersonic flight test of the “Green Hornet,” an F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter jet powered by a 50/50 biofuel blend at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. Research, development and increased use of alternative fuels is a priority for the Department of the Navy.)

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Comments (2)

  • king




  • judi


    WOW is right! I live on the border of a nature conservancy. We bought property in that area to enjoy the peace, wildlife and nature that most conservancies used to offer. I find the area anything but peaceful and it seems the wildlife are petrified. Lightening guns, hovering military jets dropping things, underground explosions, bright lights all night long and we’re all particularly thrilled to think maybe the Kochs (pronounced cokes) have a say in it. We used to have bases for our military. Our military spends more than the entire world does on “defense”. Right now I think our endangered Marsh Hawks, our Canadian Geese and other birds would rather enjoy life without having their feathers blown off and we would like to enjoy our peace and quiet. I think very few had intentions of their properties being used for warrior testing grounds . No one I know is celebrating this partnership hogwash.


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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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