While the Western Hemisphere is a vast area with many different peoples, environments, cultures, resources and concerns, all have one overarching concern: climate change, Daniel P. Erikson, the Defense Department's point man for the region, said.
Erikson serves as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere. In his travels in the region, he does more listening than talking. And he is hearing leaders from the Caribbean to Argentina to Canada talking about the threats from climate change.
He recently participated in meetings in the Bahamas where Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro engaged with leaders from the government, civil society, and academia, about the existential threat to island nations. Both DOD leaders also traveled to Panama with other representatives from the Defense Department to join the U.S. delegation for the 8th Our Ocean Conference in early March.
Our Ocean Conference is an effort to bring together a cross section of governments, different non-governmental agencies as well as the business community, to look at the variety of challenges that are facing the health and security of the oceans.
The U.S. State Department launched the initiative in 2014. U.S. Presidential Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, led the U.S. delegation with a lot of representation from DOD including Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Erikson and representatives from U.S. Southern Command.
"It was really important to attend, … to demonstrate that the United States is addressing this issue in a whole of government way," Erikson said. "Everyone recognizes that there's an important security component to maintaining the oceans as healthy and peaceful places. I think that the DOD presence at the Oceans conference really represented that we, as an agency, take the issue very seriously and that we're willing and interested in partnering with others on protecting our oceans."
Erikson discussed the extent of the problems caused by climate change, and DOD's role in combating it during an interview in his Pentagon office. "When you think of climate change, the first thing that comes to your mind is not the Department of Defense," he said. "But there certainly has to be a role for an organization as big as ours."
And there is, he said. President Joe Biden has made combating climate change a priority for the United States and he tasked the Cabinet departments to develop strategies to focus on this. Erikson said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III "has sought to ensure that the department is positioned appropriately when it comes to addressing the national security challenges that are posed by climate change."
Combating climate change is a part of the 2022 National Defense Strategy as an important transboundary challenge. "From our perspective in the office of Western Hemisphere affairs, we see the impact that climate change has on our partners on nearly a daily basis, whether it's droughts, floods, powerful storms that impact the region," he said.
These events place an increasing demand on national forces in the region to deal with some of the impacts of climate change, he said. There are calls on defense establishments in the region "to engage in some environmental issues that are relevant to climate, such as combating deforestation, illegal mining, illegal logging," he said.
The Caribbean is the region in the hemisphere already fully feeling the effects of climate change. "These are small island states, that for the most part, deal with huge set of challenges that are posed by climate," Erikson said.
And often, these nations do not have the resources, capacities or capabilities to deal with these challenges, he said.
It is in these areas that DOD can help. "The requirement to have certain capabilities for humanitarian assistance and disaster response is really key in this region," Erikson said.
DOD has the experience and capacity to aid national governments as they respond to the humanitarian needs caused by climate impacts. "Then I think looking more broadly, a key component of the U.S. national defense strategy is about forging strong relationships with our allies and partners, both in this region and globally," he said. "And one of the ways that we can do that is by working with our partners on the areas that are of highest priority to them. And in the Caribbean — the nation states that compose our third border — they are very much seized by the risks that a changing climate poses to them, they see it on a day-to-day basis."
There is certainly a security aspect to climate change for the United States. Climate ties into such issues as migration, the sustainability of shared ecosystems and even the possibility of the spread of disease.
"We've really opened a conversation [with the nations of the region] that has a lot of potential, but we're still in the very early stages of the conversation," Erikson said.
The department has also sponsored tabletop exercises to assess responses to climate change. "I think that as we move forward in this discussion, it's really illuminated the degree to which many of the security and defense forces in the Western Hemisphere are already grappling with or engaging with the impacts of climate change, even if they didn't necessarily think of it in that way," he said.