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Between China or Climate: DOD Tackling Both

Nov. 5, 2021 | BY Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy

The Defense Department doesn't face a choice between focusing on state actors or significant transnational challenges such as climate change, Dr. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy said Oct. 29. 

The Defense Climate Risk Analysis report cover.
Report Cover
The cover of the Defense Climate Risk Analysis.
Photo By: DOD graphic
VIRIN: 211021-D-D0439-032

"Both are a threat to our security, and we have to be able to address both," he said. "We don't see any tradeoff between the investments that we need to make on the climate front and remaining laser focused on China as our pacing challenge." 

Kahl was speaking at an event hosted by New America as part of a discussion on the DOD Climate Risk Analysis released last month. He was joined by the defense secretary's senior advisor for climate, Joe Bryan, who noted that there "isn't a competition between what's good for the climate [and] what's good for the mission." 

Bryan said efficient platforms are good for the climate, and "absolutely critical to contested logistics." The use of distributed generation, such as solar panels, doesn't require logistical support or battery storage, he said, so, when they are placed on-site to support a critical mission, those missions can stay up and running, even without the public grid.

A helicopter scoops water from a lake, as smoke rises from behind.
Containing Fire
A South Carolina Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter supports the South Carolina Forestry Commission to contain a fire near Table Rock, S.C. Droughts -- exacerbated by climate change -- cause fire dangers throughout much of the United States.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Roberto Di Giovine
VIRIN: 161120-Z-II459-021

Climate change is likely to contribute to a proliferation of missions for DOD in the future, both at home and abroad, Kahl said, ranging from "disaster relief and humanitarian response overseas, interventions in an increasingly unstable landscape, or even the degree to which the department is called upon to assist civilian authorities here in the United States." 

Extreme events worsened by climate change have done more damage in the past few years to American installations than any terrorist organization, he noted. 

To tackle the challenge of climate change, both Kahl and Bryan brought up reports recently released by the department. Kahl said DOD's climate risk assessment is the next step to making sure that the urgency of the climate crisis is integrated into strategic thinking at the Pentagon, and that its findings will be included in the next National Defense Strategy.

Piles of rubble surround a motor pool.
Structural Damage
Scientists warn that climate change is making hurricanes stronger. In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused significant structural damage to the majority of Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and surrounding areas after going ashore as a Category 4 storm.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Conroy
VIRIN: 181011-F-BH566-1091

The DCRA complements the DOD Climate Adaptation Plan, also released last month. The plan provides a roadmap to ensure the department maintains the ability to operate under changing climate conditions.

DOD is focused on climate change, Kahl said, as illustrated by the release of the DCRA and CAP, adding that climate will be on the table in a way that it hasn't previously been in bilateral and multilateral defense engagements. 

"I am confident that we can build something in the next few years that is good for our security, and good for the nation," Kahl said.