This fall, Hurricane Fiona tore through the Caribbean and battered Puerto Rico, followed shortly by Hurricane Ian, which decimated parts of Florida. Taken together, the two storms serve as the most recent reminder that ever-more frequent climate shocks threaten people's lives, livelihoods and stability.
The National Security Strategy President Joe Biden released on Oct. 12 calls climate change the "existential challenge of our time."
The Defense Department and militaries and security forces in Latin America and the Caribbean often support civilian agencies in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Given the increasing frequency, scale and complexity of military missions and the demand for defense support, the DOD has undertaken several efforts to identify the ways that climate change is irrevocably altering the context in which the department operates.
Daniel P. Erikson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Principal Deputy Director for Logistics for the Joint Staff, Kristina O'Brien, helmed a tabletop exercise dubbed Precipitous Storm in June to assess opportunities for DOD and the U.S. to deepen engagement in Latin America and the Caribbean to prepare, respond and reduce climate change-related security and defense risks.
The exercise brought together representatives from across the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Southern Command, Department of State and the Agency for International Development for an initial U.S. government strategic and policy-level dialogue.
As a next step, Southcom will host an exercise with Latin American and Caribbean partners in 2023 focused on deepening our regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief cooperation mechanisms in the context of climate stressors.
The exercise presented significant climate change-driven catastrophic conditions 15 years out to 2037, including direct impacts, such as degraded critical infrastructure, environmental damage, economic decline and food supply insecurity. The exercise also examined longer-term secondary effects on security and defense, such as conflict and instability, economic realignments, migrant flows and competition among major powers.
The exercise underscored that in the near and medium-term, environmental security challenges will threaten U.S. national security interests and adversely impact partners by exacerbating state fragility, fueling conflicts and contributing to large-scale instability and migration, creating conditions that state and non-state actors can exploit.
Participants recognized that DOD's personnel and logistics capabilities are often the difference between life and death for those affected.
The exercise underscored the need and willingness for DOD to work with and within the interagency to deepen collaboration with regional partners to help further develop their shared capabilities and interoperability.
These initiatives build on other tabletop exercises, like Elliptic Thunder set in East Africa, that similarly brought together several DOD components to assess the impacts of climate change and related defense and security challenges. "We're trying to increase understanding of all the ways climate change is impacting the missions of the Department of Defense — and particularly how it impacts the warfighter," said Iris Ferguson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Arctic and global resilience.
Erikson noted that these exercises help DOD "adopt a more climate-informed posture, enhance security cooperation to increase military capacity to support civilian authorities' humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and facilitate even deeper cooperation regionally."
"Exercises like Precipitous Storm can play an important role in enabling DOD to refine its tool to engage with regional partners on how the changing climate impacts regional defense, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean," he added
The U.S. and the DOD are accelerating and broadening efforts to address climate security implications. Speaking at the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Brazil last July, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said, "No country can find lasting security without tackling the climate crisis."
DOD, along with several federal agencies across the government, recently released its 2022 Climate Adaptation Plan Progress Report summarizing the significant steps DOD has taken to address climate-related threats across the five lines of effort outlined in the 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan the defense secretary signed September of last year.
"Climate change is not a problem the United States can solve on its own," Joe Bryan, the defense secretary's senior climate advisor, said. "We need to work with the international community to build the capabilities we need to meet the climate crisis." Bryan will lead a DOD delegation to the 27th UN Climate Change Conference in November in Egypt.