The defense secretary has called climate change an "existential threat." Last spring, at the Leaders Summit on Climate, Lloyd J. Austin III highlighted particular challenges in the Pacific associated with the ways "rising sea levels and more frequent and intense storms put individuals, families and whole communities at risk — while pushing the limits of our collective capacity to respond."
The particular challenges in the Pacific region were also highlighted by the official performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities at a Congressional hearing in July that focused specifically on climate change.
During the "Combating Climate Change in East Asia and the Pacific" hearing, Melissa Dalton testified alongside colleagues from the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. She acknowledged the importance of Defense Department support to the State Department, USAID and allies and partners in addressing the effects of climate change in the Indo-Pacific region. In particular, Dalton addressed the ways climate is exacerbating existing challenges and creating new ones.
She told senators that increased frequency and intensity of extreme events, and rising sea levels, can endanger critical national security sites located in climate-exposed parts of the Pacific. Dalton noted how the Marshall Islands has an average elevation of just six feet above sea level. This climate-exposed country hosts critical national security sites, such as the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site and the Space Fence facility on Kwajalein Atoll.
More broadly, climate change may also contribute to migration, insecurity and instability which threatens U.S. allies and partners. Extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change are a factor which can make vulnerable populations susceptible to recruitment and radicalization by extremist groups.
To address climate-related challenges in East Asia and the Pacific, Dalton said that "the department continues to collaborate with allies and partners in the Pacific to prepare for a combined response capability for climate-related emergencies, through efforts such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus working groups on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the Pacific Islands Forum, and the FRANZ agreement with France, Australia and New Zealand."
Dalton also said, "DOD has developed a Climate Assessment Tool, or DCAT, which uses historical data and future climate projections to enable personnel at all levels of the department — from installation planners to leadership — to understand installations' exposure to climate-related hazards." In the Indo-Pacific region, the department has committed to sharing DCAT with U.S. allies, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Climate continues to be part of high-level dialogue. On September 16, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne in Washington, D.C., for the 31st Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations. The leaders discussed ambitious, goal-driven collaboration on climate, clean energy and the environment. In preparation for the Quad Summit on September 24, they also commended the Quad Climate Working Group as an effective platform to advance collaboration on climate goals and support ambitious climate action across the Indo-Pacific region.
In a joint statement that followed the meeting, the U.S. and Australian leaders acknowledged the global security threat posed by climate change and committed to continuing cooperation on disaster response and resilience measures in defense planning.
They also noted the threats to human security across the region in which climate change plays a part, including pandemics and growing water and food scarcity, which are compounded by population growth, urbanization and extreme weather events. With this in mind, DOD announced it will share its Defense Climate Assessment Tool with Australia.
The department has postured considerable defense capabilities forward in the Pacific region, such as missile defense and domain awareness assets in the Marshall Islands, Palau and the U.S. territory Guam. At the July hearing, Dalton explained that DOD's integrated air and missile defense systems are designed to protect the U.S. from missile attacks.
Additionally, the department depends on forward basing in Oceania and the Western Pacific to test new technology. This forward U.S. posture contributes to strategic stability with China, but also supports the defense by Japan and South Korea against potential North Korean aggression.
Finally, DOD is incorporating climate change into strategy, planning, assets, investments and activities, including the National Defense Strategy. Dalton highlighted how the DOD Climate Risk Analysis will help various DOD components, notably regional combatant commands such as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, assess their vulnerabilities.
"We anticipate the 2022 National Defense Strategy will help the department to better understand its role in addressing the effects of climate change on the U.S. joint force and through its work with allies and partners," she said.
Since that July hearing, DOD has continued to press the importance of a whole of government approach to addressing climate. In August, Austin traveled to the Pacific and Alaska where he spoke about the need to prepare for "climate changes that will impact our future."
In addition, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl established a climate policy team that is working to integrate climate considerations in secretary-level strategic documents to drive prioritization of climate considerations throughout the department.