Can the Army Handle the Security Challenges in Climate Change: Threats, Resilience, Adaptation?

By David MillerApril 19, 2021

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – The U.S. Army’s Mad Scientist Initiative hosted a panel of experts to discuss the impact of climate change on emerging threats and U.S. efforts to address them. This event helped discern the U.S. Army's role in mitigating climate change and how climate change will challenge the Army’s ability to sustain critical missions.  This panel held on April 13, is a part of a series of virtual events to explore competition and conflict in the future operational environment.

Panelists included Dr. Anne Marie Baylouny, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at Naval Postgraduate School, Devabhaktuni “Sri” Srikrishna, Founder of, Damarys Acevedo-Mackey, Environmental Engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Dr. Elizabeth Chalecki, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and Wilson Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The current administration has called upon the U.S. “to lean forward, not shrink back” in addressing the “deepening climate emergency.” In his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued last month, President Joseph R. Biden states, “The climate crisis has been centuries in the making, and even with aggressive action, the United States and the world will experience increasing weather extremes and environmental stress in the years ahead. But, if we fail to act now, we will miss our last opportunity to avert the most dire consequences of climate change for the health of our people, our economy, our security, and our planet.”

Some states are attempting to address the climate crisis via geoengineering, which The Royal Society (an independent society that represents promoting science and its benefits) defines as “the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the earth's climate system to moderate global warming.” However, such a solution could present a threat in itself. Dr. Chalecki elaborates, “We're going to start looking at technologies to defend ourselves against [geoengineering]. States have attempted to weaponize the weather before, the United States has been one of them, and there's no guarantee to say we won't do it again as states can claim no hostile intent.” Dr. Chalecki explained that regulation of this technology, similar to international efforts to regulate nuclear weapons, will be essential to ensuring security as geoengineering develops.

Baylouny focused on climate change and mass migration, which has the potential to drive future conflict hotspots. She asserted climate migration will create new security concerns for impacted countries and their neighbors. According to Baylouny, “Extreme events are occurring with increased frequency and land is losing its profitability slowly for a number of different reasons around the globe and degradation of the environment has a long history of causing people to move and triggering migration." As global population and resource scarcity increase, people will increasingly turn to migration and conflict to ensure survival. She argued, "Human beings, when threatened with starvation, thirst, and death, will increasingly act in violent ways towards other humans.” CPT Kyle Hollowell echoed this in his blog Change: Destroyer of World  where he similarly claims, “What makes climate change so important is its resultant change in the behavior of the entire human population.” These consequences will disproportionately fall on the developing world to create new vulnerabilities and exacerbate existing risks.

Srikrishina was resolute on prioritizing aero security for the U.S. Army, government, and population, as clean air will also be attacked by climate change. He explained, “Think of clean air as something that is going to be important in climate change. From a technological perspective, we use antivirus for our computer [antivirus are designed to prevent, search for, detect, and remove software viruses, and other malicious software like worms, trojans, adware, and more] and we do not hesitate to use it. The equivalent is a face mask to prevent other viruses from spreading.” This helpful analogy helps us understand that while we may see more airborne pandemics as a result of climate change, we can begin preparing now. Masks, HEPA filters, and detection technology can provide cost-effective preventative measures to prevent and respond to future pandemics facilitated by climate change.

Srikrishna conveyed that, when faced with a pandemic, the speed of response is crucial. The main lesson from the West African Ebola Epidemic in 2014-2015, and repeated in 2020 the present pandemic of COVID-19, conveyed that while heroic and tireless, the CDC, WHO, FDA, biotech industry, and local public health organizations were too slow to stop the spread of disease. Srikrishna concluded, “We need decentralized, instant ways to control these pandemics, and that’s not something you could impose from a top-down perspective because ultimately its behavior change. Then when coronavirus hit, we saw almost the same thing happen. It affected Army bases across the country, and this was after people had already implemented testing and people had gone through negative tests. Then they were going to the base suddenly they tested positive and forced the whole group to close.”

Acevedo-Mackey reaffirmed the importance of military installations, focusing on their critical role in national security and ways climate change could threaten their ability to sustain critical missions. Namely, sea level rise, flooding, melting, drought, and increased heat as a result of climate change will require extensive adaptations to military installations. Extreme weather can also create infrastructure damage and reduce mission effectiveness. Acevedo-Mackey stated, “This causes damage to infrastructure, causes increased energy and water demand, and leads to reduced capacity to carry out mission.” She noted, “Migration also impact Army Installations the loss of energy and water supply (to freshwater) places a higher strain on the power grid. This leads to conflicts to newly accessible water resources and direct contact with other nations. This also increases the range of insects that are vectors for infectious diseases.”

While the cost of climate change-driven desertification, drought, flooding, and wildfires to the Army are high, the unseen cost to Soldier readiness is even higher. Wildfires and desertification reduce the availability of land for training, adversely impacting units’ readiness and driving up programming requirements for the Army’s Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM) Program. The risk of wildfires has led to the conservative use of live fire training ranges and maneuver training areas, potentially decreasing weapons proficiency. Rising global temperatures have also increased heat related injuries for Soldiers. The U.S. military recognizes the threat climate change and rising temperatures is having on Soldiers across both operational and training areas and is working to mitigate this threat. However, more resources will be necessary to fully adapt installations to the environment introduced by climate change.

In describing the evolution of the climate threat, Chalecki said, “Since the 1950s, the changes are unprecedented in speed and scale. Even if we go hard on renewable energy right now, the earth will look different with temperatures rising one, two, to three degrees.” While this may not seem severe, Chalecki emphasized, “It is [a significant change] for an ecosystem, so we could see many changes in areas where people live and grow their food.”

Given that this problem can now be considered inevitable, what should the Army prioritize? Our panelists recommended, “Stop ignoring migration and migrants and the issues”; “Work with making the civilian world more resilient”; “Air quality”; and finally, “More security challenges are coming from climate change than imagined and could lead to more issues than thought.”

Previous Mad Scientist Initiative events have focused on future learning, bioengineering, disruptive technologies, megacities, dense urban areas, and identifying other opportunities for further assessment and experimentation.

More information about the Mad Scientist Initiative can be found at

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL