As environmental destruction becomes an increasingly omnipresent challenge, it’s time to rethink how we fight it. When you think about defense, probably the last thing that comes to mind is environmental responsibility, and for good reason. Conventionally, defense has meant consuming unthinkable amounts of fossil fuels to protect the interests of allied nations from hostile actors. But at its most fundamental level, national security is really about sustaining our way of life. And today, the climate crisis threatens almost every aspect of this way of life. How soon we realize this, and act on it, will be a key factor in determining the resilience of our societies in the decades to come.
In the near future, we will have to leverage the same risk management capabilities we have developed for defense in order to harden our world against the increasingly grave threat of climate change. From risk management to disaster readiness, decision support platforms, supply chain tools, autonomous sensing, critical communications, and mobility planning, our civilian societies have much to learn from those we trust to defend them. So here are three areas where national security and sustainability overlap in the interest of creating a more resilient, equitable, and prosperous future.
In the first two months after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the European Union paid Russia more than 44 billion euros for oil and gas imports, essentially fueling the war crimes that have horrified the West. Embargoing Russian fossil fuels proved to be politically challenging because the bloc is so dependent on them: conventionally, the European Union gets nearly 40% of its imported natural gas from Russia. After the EU finally committed to phase out Russian oil and gas by 2027, Moscow began using energy as an "instrument of blackmail," reducing fuel flows to the bloc by 60%. The resultant energy crisis has pushed gas prices 12 times higher than at the start of 2021, and that was before Moscow completely closed off a key European supply route, Nord Stream 1, on August 31. As Europeans face a looming recession and possible energy rationing, the economic squeeze is severely limiting the bloc's ability to combat the atrocities underway in Ukraine - as well as our collective ability to prevent climate destruction.
Consider another nation that is highly hostile to democratic values: China. From 2015 to 2018, China was responsible for 80% of the rare earth metals imports to the US. Used in a vast array of technology applications, from batteries to electric vehicles, motors, turbines, fiber optics, medical equipment, computers, miniature systems, and personal devices, these materials are critical to both national security and the clean energy transition. As a result, the demand for rare earths is projected to rise over 40% in the next two decades. So in light of the chip shortages and other supply chain issues already roiling the global economy today, how can we secure our technology independence in the future?
The circular economy offers a compelling answer with both environmental and national security benefits. If we learn to design for disassembly so we can recapture and reuse valuable minerals and metals after their first life, we have the potential to unlock an estimated $57 billion in value, based on an analysis of electronic waste. The key to changing our rare earth metals dependence is either mining asteroids, or learning how to reuse the metals we have already mined from earth. In the process, we can build domestic technology supply chains to insulate them from shortages, disruptions, and the whims of adversarial nations.
No foreign dictator can monopolize the sun or wind in the same way that autocrats in Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia have amassed power from fossil fuel profits. If we learn to reuse the raw materials in our products, we will also increase our independence from countries who overwhelmingly control rare earth metals and conflict minerals. Decarbonizing each and every sector of our economy as rapidly as possible offers an unmatched opportunity to improve our environmental and national security outlook at the same time.
In defense, the concept of readiness represents a force’s ability to meet the demands of the day. If we apply this idea to the climate crisis, it is obvious that our industrialized societies are falling short. From devastating wildfires in the American West and Australia, to catastrophic flooding across Europe and China, or cold waves in Spain and Texas, it has become clear that even the world’s wealthiest places are not prepared for the devastating effects of the environmental crisis.
The side with the best intelligence usually wins the war. To collect and make sense of vast troves of information in time to make a difference, the defense industry has developed mature technologies across autonomous sensing & data collection; critical communications; data processing and distribution; and integrated command and control. It’s time to apply these skillsets to make a difference in the climate crisis.
Today, there is so much data on climate change; but there is precious little climate intelligence to support civilian leaders faced with impossibly challenging circumstances. By leveraging existing capabilities in crisis response, we can move from a reactive posture toward natural disasters and climate change, to a more predictive and proactive posture of readiness. By the end of the century, 85% of people will live in or near urban centers. How will we evacuate them? How will we allocate resources when a crisis hits? How can we protect critical infrastructure? Who decides, and how does that decision get executed?
These are questions that every military fleet and crisis response team must be able to answer. Our civilian societies will have to adopt this mindset. We know that climate havoc will only increase in the future; that our cities will continue to grow; that drought will continue threatening farmland; and that access to resources will become an increasingly dire challenge. By treating climate change like the ongoing crisis that it really is, we can package environmental and security capabilities together to prepare cities, countries, and the international community for the storms that are coming.
As we seek to better understand how to protect our societies against climate catastrophe, we must also learn to design new cities and infrastructure for resilience in an uncertain future. Our security and prosperity depends on it. Already, extreme weather events are displacing 200 million people around the world annually. By 2050, a projected 1.2 billion people will be climate refugees due to prolonged droughts, desertification, sea-level rise, and other environmental disasters. Our cities - and our world - are simply not designed for this level of flux.
And the impacts of climate change are not limited to civilian life: in the US, more than 200 domestic Department of Defense (DoD) installations reported in 2018 that they had been flooded by storm surges. In 2008, that number was 30. In areas like Sudan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, extreme drought and weather events have already contributed to conflict by inflaming tensions over access to food, water and other essential resources. In this environment, a National Geographic study found that water and food were being used as recruitment tools for terror groups.
As tensions rise over access to increasingly scarce resources, conflict will create even more displaced people, with even less access to livelihoods and basic necessities. From a standpoint of national security, sustainability, and human rights, this vicious cycle must be stopped. So what do we do about it? The most urgent answer is that we must halve our global emissions by 2030 to avert the worst consequences of climate change. The second answer is that we have to learn how to harden our societies against the consequences that are already here.
In the defense world, we have developed many advanced tools and systems that support commanders, procurement experts, policymakers, and contractors in their efforts to make challenging investment decisions for our national security. The civilian world is long overdue for an analogous solution for climate security. Given that budgets are always limited, how might a city choose between investing in renewable energy, electric transit, water conservation, or low-carbon upgrades to buildings and infrastructure? Places like Miami in the US are projected to see 11 inches of sea level rise by 2040 - that’s less than 18 years away. That number surpasses 5 feet by 2100. Knowing this, how can we help officials decide between bolstering sea walls, putting infrastructure on stilts, or simply helping citizens move? When fire scorches a town, should it be rebuilt, or are budgets better spent elsewhere? How can we scale and coordinate these kinds of decisions to improve resilience at the local, regional, national, and international level?
Part of the military concept of resilience includes graceful degradation, or the idea that we must maintain critical capabilities - such as command, control and communications - even when we lose access to our full repertoire of resources. To be clear, we must hold nothing back in our work to decarbonize our economy to avoid the doomsday scenarios forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But we must also think about what we may leave behind as we head for higher ground; and what we want to bring to the societies we will build in the future.
In an ever changing world, our urban societies will need new systems to safeguard their citizens. But we shouldn’t stop there: the climate crisis is also an opportunity to create a more equitable future. We can and should always demand more integrity, more transparency, and more justice from our established defense systems and civilian societies, but these important conversations should not stop us from working together. Because in the climate crisis, there’s no room for anyone to sit on the sidelines, especially not the massive organizations that have been created to protect us. From fossil fuel independence, to environmental readiness and intelligence, to future-proofing cities by design, our national security and sustainability goals can empower us to build a better world for the generations to come.