Every soldier in a cold and wet foxhole understands the impact of weather on military operations, so it is no surprise that weather is a core element of military planning. But the global impact of climate change means that every warfighter stands to benefit from infusing climate-forward thinking into battlefield planning, tactical training and defense procurement efforts.
Today, climate change is an inextricable part of the operational environment. Extreme weather events are increasingly threatening military installations and adding additional stress points to operational readiness and supply chains that support critical operations. Disappearing Arctic ice is opening up new vectors for maritime confrontations. Fossil fuel dependencies are pressuring military supply lines and complicating forward operations in remote environments.
Climate change is also impacting the human considerations that drive conflict. Shrinking fresh water supplies are already causing friction between neighboring nations that share common waterways. Similarly, many countries threatened by drought, flooding and rising sea levels are as concerned about climate change as they are about other security threats.
Militaries around the world — including the United States — are awakening to this new reality and are investing in efforts to prepare for, adapt to and mitigate the climate crisis. But in order to succeed in future conflicts, militaries must look beyond merely making bases and equipment more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Adversaries are already experimenting with using climate in small slices of their offensive operations through climate-themed information operations. To avoid being left behind, the most forward-thinking militaries should begin to see the opportunities of embedding climate into every facet of their operations, including strategic and operational planning.
Doing so requires a significant mindset shift. And to institutionalize this mindset shift and seize the advantage of climate-forward defense, the U.S. military should adjust how it:
- Trains: To augment the U.S. Defense Department’s ongoing climate literacy efforts, war games should include climate-related themes to allow senior leaders to hone skills in identifying where climate change could present strategic opportunities.
- Plans: Revise “Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning” to consider climate in all operational assessments. The DoD can also bring an added climate lens to its planning and operations efforts by substantively incorporating climate into its planning doctrine.
- Buys: Military-specific climate needs can help uncover new innovations, but only if they are identified. As a result, climate impact should be a key consideration in the requirements process to help capture those military needs.
Ultimately, this mindset shift moves the military from seeing climate change purely as a constraint to work around, and instead to seeing it as an opportunity to maximize operational advantages. Moreover, if climate implications are embraced as mission overmatch opportunities, they can compete with other mission parameters — like range and payload — and help catalyze the next wave of innovation.
Just as GPS was developed to solve a purely military problem, yet went on to create entire commercial industries, the DoD has a similar opportunity with climate technology. Fielding corrosion-resistant materials or denser, lighter energy storage will not only directly benefit troops in the field, but also catalyze economic growth, which research has shown supports long-term military effectiveness.
By shifting its mindset to see climate change as a critical strategic opportunity and adopting a climate-forward mentality, the military has a significant opportunity to improve both its readiness and its combat effectiveness. Relatively inexpensive changes to processes and training can create a pathway to improve military effectiveness, overcome adversaries and achieve battlefield success for years to come.
Ruthie Fetscher, a principal at the consultancy Deloitte, helps lead energy resilience, climate adaptation and infrastructure modernization strategies and implementation efforts for clients, including the U.S. Defense Department. Josh Sawislak, a managing director at Deloitte, helps lead sustainability and climate adaptation efforts.
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