Let’s Not Get Caught Flat-Footed on the Next Crisis: Coronavirus, Climate Change, and American Security

By Christine Parthemore and Hon. Sherri Goodman

The devastating COVID-19 crisis is driving a national conversation on how we define our security. While this debate is overdue, calls for the nation to reallocate resources from national defense, to threats like the novel coronavirus, are overly simplistic. In the face of complex transnational risks like pandemics and climate change, it is important to consider broadening the government toolkit, not narrowing it.

Indeed, the emerging discourse on the definition of American security should reflect the critical roles our defense agencies play in addressing threats like pandemics and climate change, in concert with their interagency partners. This begins by recognizing how such issues affect even our traditional notions of national security.

First, transnational challenges like pandemics and climate change present direct threats to our nation’s security. Their effects can cost lives, heighten tensions among countries, reduce the readiness of defense forces, and drive new mission requirements.

Unfortunately, events of recent years provide abundant examples. COVID-19 is spreading on U.S. aircraft carriers and other Naval vessels. Other countries, including many U.S. allies and partners, are fighting this same challenge. Curtailing previous, severe outbreaks like the 2014-16 Ebola crisis required unique expertise, capabilities, and logistical assets of U.S. and other countries’ defense forces. That shouldn’t be forgotten.

Defense forces are also on the front lines of climate change. Scientists have long warned that a changing climate would make this century’s natural disasters more frequent and severe. It is now frighteningly common for extreme weather events to rip military bases apart. In March 2019, one third of Offutt Air Force Base—which houses critical roles regarding U.S. nuclear forces—was flooded, with more than 60 structures damaged beyond repair.

Second, these disease and climatic dangers are also threat multipliers. They contribute to and amplify other security challenges, from accelerating trends in geostrategic competition to the most localized conflicts between parties competing for resources.

COVID-19 is highlighting that we now live in an era of converging risks, and cascading disasters. Disagreements over transparency and disinformation regarding the disease are worsening tensions with China. Iran has declared COVID-19 to be a biological weapon, possibly of U.S. origin, as that country reportedly ramps up plans to further attack U.S. positions in the Middle East. The virus is spreading into Libya, already long suffering from a civil conflict with different warring factions backed by countries like Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

Though it is not new, these conflict-coronavirus collisions are another reminder that our approach to security must account for the age-old coupling of disease and warfare. Even before the current pandemic, the most recent battle against Ebola in Congo was hampered by conflict, at times limiting medical interventions. 

Similarly, climate change-related trends have long contributed to or coincided with various conflicts. For years, U.S. defense and intelligence officials have called attention to the confluence of droughts, population dislocation, terrorism, and weakening states in places like Nigeria. These trends both combine to overwhelm authorities and at times directly worsen one another. Likewise, ice loss in the increasingly navigable Arctic forms yet another contributor to our worsening relations with Russia and its remilitarization of that region.

Third, the convergence of these threats with yet other challenges is shaping the global security environment. Yemen, for example, has been hammered by war, disease, water scarcity, political upheaval, and economic woes all at once. For nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, many security experts are increasingly concerned that trends like climate change, water stress and inadequate energy access will worsen such countries’ territorial and historical disputes. Overwhelmed by so many pressures at once, we can expect ripe conditions for miscalculations that contribute to sparking conflict or escalation of existing ones.    

Such convergence is heightening an even grander fear: collapse of the global governance systems and norms built after our last century’s World Wars that helped lower the risks of mass-scale warfare, genocide, the use of nuclear weapons, and other catastrophes. 

The failure of countries to adequately address threats like COVID-19 and climate change are fueling a mounting crisis of confidence in international cooperation. This is then compounding years of frustration that cooperative approaches have failed to arrest new nuclear arms racing or stop civil wars in places like Syria.

As a result, long-entrusted treaty systems are weakening. Nations are turning inward. The world has seen such trends before, to devastating effect. 

Unraveling these trends will take a shift in our approach to our national security, though this does not inherently mean moving resources away from national defense. Indeed, many important solutions involve bolstering the ways in which America’s national security and intelligence agencies address threats like pandemics and climate change, as we highlight, for example, in our Climate and Security Plan for America.

Several areas of the U.S. defense budget will require more resources. This includes biodefense programs vital to halting the spread of diseases before they reach pandemic levels or otherwise impair our national defenses—whether they come by natural causes or deliberate biological attacks. It also includes a range of capacities that help prepare for and prevent the worst effects of climate change on our military bases and on stability of other nations.

We must also empower our national security leaders to best protect the health of those who put their lives on the line for our country. This includes significant resources for detecting and treating diseases like COVID-19. Equally important are policies to battle the growing trend of heat-related illness among our military personnel as the world warms. 

Science will be central in addressing this century’s threats and the ways in which they converge. As such, the climate modelers and biothreat experts at our National Labs and universities deserve much greater support, akin to that provided to their nuclear counterparts.

Going forward, our national security strategy must include many tools for turning back the dangerous, rising tide of nationalism. Support for agreements and treaties that address climate risks and nuclear threats, and for institutions like the World Health Organization, will be a start.

We also need to work with other nations to build new cooperative organizations designed to address complex threats and their convergence. A surge of diplomacy will be central, but our defense strategy must also support these approaches to American security.

The United States can’t address threats like climate change or infectious diseases alone. Likewise, we can’t fight these threats without our national security institutions playing active roles.

Christine Parthemore is Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Strategic Risks, where she also leads the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons. Her prior roles included working against biological threats as the Senior Advisor to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.

Sherri Goodman is Chair of the Board of the Council on Strategic Risks and a Senior Strategist with the Center for Climate and Security. Among many leadership roles in national defense and climate security, from 1993 to 2001 Ms. Goodman served as U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security). Her trailblazing work includes creating CNA’s Military Advisory Board, whose 2007 report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change first recognized climate change as a threat multiplier. 


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