Climate Change From A Navy’s Perspective

Climate Change From A Navy’s Perspective

he United States Navy operates on the front lines of climate change. It manages tens of billions of dollars of assets on every continent and on every ocean. Those assets—ships, submarines, aircraft, naval bases, and the technology that links everything together—take many years to design and build and then have decades of useful life. This means that the navy needs to understand now what sorts of missions it may be required to perform in 10, 20, or 30 years and what assets and infrastructure it will need to carry out those missions. Put another way, it needs to plan for the world that will exist at that time.

The Department of Defense is clear-eyed about the challenges climate change poses. “The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world,” the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, issued in 2014, states. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Leaders across the political spectrum, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have all noted the security implications of global warming. Like many other organizations, the navy cannot afford to treat climate change as a partisan issue. The Department of Defense knows that the mid-century world for which the admirals are now planning is likely to be warmer than today’s, with higher sea levels, new precipitation patterns, and more frequent and severe extreme weather events, imperiling and destabilizing many regions domestically and abroad. This creates two problems that exacerbate each other and that the navy needs to address simultaneously.

First, climate change is expected to increase the demand for the navy’s military and humanitarian services. Its effects not only will expand the geographic scope of the navy’s mission—from drought-prone regions experiencing heightened disputes over water rights, to coastal areas facing mass migration, to the Arctic, where melting sea ice clears the way for new shipping lanes, increased mineral extraction, and new opportunities for conflict. They also will alter the mix and frequency of demand for the navy’s various services.

Second, climate change may impair the capacity of the navy to deliver its services. As sea levels rise and weather patterns become more severe, the risk of damage to the domestic and global network of bases and ports on which it depends to maintain fleet readiness will also increase. Thus, the navy must boost the resilience of its infrastructure—and of the supply chains that provide critical energy and material support to its bases and fleet.

Climate change is not a onetime bump from one equilibrium to a warmer one but, rather, a continuous, accelerating process. This creates the need to plan not for a new static world but for an increasingly dynamic one. The navy’s leaders have been working to address this reality head-on, despite resistance from some politicians who continue to debate the very fact of climate change. To do otherwise would compromise its ability to meet its fundamental objectives: “to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.”

Military organizations are idiosyncratic and special. Their primary “output” is lethal force, controlled in ways that compel people to do what they don’t want to do. No legitimate firm does anything remotely comparable. And yet there is a long tradition of business leaders learning from their military counterparts—in defining strategic goals, coordinating individuals’ activities to accomplish collective objectives, setting priorities and managing trade-offs, creating resilient organizations in the face of change, and leading others. In the climate arena, too, business leaders can learn from the military.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the navy’s approach to climate change and reflect on the implications for business.

Two Approaches

Responses to climate change are typically categorized as mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation refers to actions that reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Prime examples include replacing technologies with more-energy-efficient ones and switching to renewable fuels. Mitigation efforts may require substantial investment by individual companies or organizations, but the benefits of reducing the potential economic and societal damages associated with climate change are enjoyed by all. As such, mitigation is a public good—which notoriously attracts less investment because the returns are shared by noninvestors.

Adaptation refers to actions that make an organization more resilient in the face of ongoing and forecasted changes in the earth’s systems. Common examples include relocating water-intensive operations from increasingly drought-prone areas and siting and engineering buildings in ways that enable them to better avoid, withstand, or recover from floods and severe weather events. Adaptation differs from mitigation in that the investors in the adaptation activities are the primary beneficiaries. Thus, it doesn’t face the same incentive problems that mitigation does, and for that reason, one might assume that firms—and nations—would focus their resources on adaptation. But so far they haven’t.


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