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DOD Exercise Highlights Need to Address Climate Change, Its Impacts

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The Defense Department's first climate and environmental security "tabletop" exercise, dubbed Elliptic Thunder, highlighted the growing security threats posed by climate and environmental change, while illustrating that prevention activities today are essential to avoiding dire consequences in the future, Annalise Blum, an American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow in Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy's Office of Stability and Humanitarian Affairs said.   

Poster of tabletop exercise 'Elliptic Thunder'
Elliptic Thunder
Poster of tabletop exercise 'Elliptic Thunder'
Photo By: DOD Graphic
VIRIN: 210512-O-D0439-001

Elliptic Thunder, which was co-sponsored by the Office of Stability and Humanitarian Affairs and the Joint Staff J5, took place March 25.  Based upon future climate, economic and population forecasts, the exercise was set in East Africa in a notional future in which climate change had gradually disrupted natural systems, weakening several states in the region and increasing the risk of climate-driven extreme events. A combination of floods, droughts, and cyclones led to shortages of food, water, and energy — causing large-scale instability and migration. This instability expanded opportunities for extremist groups and strategic rivals to gain influence with consequences for U.S. national security and defense objectives. 

Adam Mausner, senior policy advisor in SHA, noted that the exercise made clear that climate change is a national security issue, and should be tackled with the same urgency and resourcing as other major threats to our country. "Additionally, high-end conventional combat capabilities were of little use in the scenario, as our adversaries instead engaged in irregular warfare to gain advantage," he said.

A woman and two children sit on a blanket and look at a book.
Story Time
Rebecca Kapaira of Zimbabwe reads with her children, April 3, 2020. Due to the severe drought that gripped Zimbabwe, Kapaira has had to skip some meals in order to feed her five children. The U.S. Agency for International Development works with the World Food Program to provide food to over 1.8 million people in Zimbabwe.
Photo By: Claire Nevill, World Food Program
VIRIN: 200403-O-D0466-1004
A woman tends a small pot sitting on an open fire.
Family Dinner
Rebecca Kapaira of Zimbabwe cooks for her family while her children play in the background. Due to the severe drought that gripped Zimbabwe, Kapaira has had to skip some meals to feed her children. The U.S. Agency for International Development works with the World Food Program to provide food to over 1.8 million people in Zimbabwe.
Photo By: Claire Nevill, World Food Program
VIRIN: 200403-O-D0466-1007

Participants in the exercise included representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Africa Command; Joe Bryan, special assistant to the Secretary of Defense for climate;  and representatives from the National Security Council, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Intelligence Community and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The main takeaways of the Elliptic Thunder exercise included:

  • Climate and environmental change will exacerbate existing threats and security challenges via increased frequency and severity of environmental stressors and extreme events. Compounding and cascading events are likely to be particularly disruptive.
  • Environmental changes have implications across the department with respect to great power competition, counterterrorism, our alliances and partners, basing, access to ports and landing sites, infrastructure investments and more. 
  • DOD will need to develop and/or refine policies, authorities and organizations — as well as processes, budget and funding to best prepare for and respond to climate threats.
  • Improved understanding of emerging threats will help prevent and prepare for future environmental and climate security challenges. Enabling a shift to prevention activities will help avoid simply responding to crises.
  • Building partner capacity and resiliency will be critical to manage climate risks. Effective diplomacy and strategic messaging will be essential to countering adversaries who will seek to exploit climate-related insecurity for strategic advantage. 
  • A whole-of-government approach is needed to address climate and environmental security threats across the federal government. Partnerships with industry, academia and non-profit organizations can improve sharing and coordination of data-collection, modeling, disaster response initiatives and early warning best practices. 

Blum noted that participants expressed interest in future tabletop exercises to address the impacts of climate change and environmental security challenges. Future exercises, she said, might include greater participation from allies and partners to include experts from NATO, the United Nations, the scientific community, the humanitarian and disaster recovery community and other relevant experts.

Two men take photos of ice on a river.
Field Team
Field team senior hydraulic engineer Matt McClerren, left, and hydraulic technician Jon DePhillips, both with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit district, document ice jams on the St. Clair River at Algonac State Park, Mich., Feb. 3, 2021.
Photo By: William Dowell, Army
VIRIN: 210203-A-DT641-001C

Bryan emphasized the value of the exercise and the need for future exercises, assessments and other events to help the department better understand the links between climate change and global security.

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