*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on September 23, 2019, under a slightly different title. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Like Leif Ericson’s arrival of a millennia ago, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg landed recently on North American shores via emission-free sailboat—an event that may signal a sea change in the way Americans see climate and national security.
Thunberg’s called for a “global climate strike” on Friday, Sept. 20, that will span over 150 countries in the largest of her “Fridays for future” protest events. That’s just a prelude to her participation in the Monday, Sept. 23 United Nations Climate Change Summit, and her boat’s arrival was welcomed to the docks in late August by a swarm of international media and youth activists, an in-person representation of her 1.4-million-strong Twitter supporters. Thunberg has clearly catalyzed and inspired the world’s youngest (and largest) social cohorts—Generation Z and Millennials—to protest political inaction on climate change.
With the bold zeal of an attacking army, these young climate ‘warriors’ may just upend the way Americans think about threats. While American national security has typically focused on traditional warfare, across the globe, including in some of America’s closest allies—Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom—climate change is seen as the top international threat, according to a poll published by the Pew Research Center earlier this year.
Within the US, support for prioritizing policies on the environment and climate change have steadily increased since 2011, and is fast approaching a tipping point as younger demographic blocs mature and tend to support active policies to combat and contain climate threats. That’s what makes Thunberg’s arrival such a potent physical manifestation of a social trend-line that will likely have a massive impact on American national security policy.
If the purpose of national security is to protect “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, then the more death and devastation from the rising climate, the more Americans will demand protection.
There’s ample reason to be concerned. Hurricane Maria killed approximately 3,000 people in 2017, Katrina took nearly 2,000 lives in 2005, and the Camp Fire this past fall was the deadliest in California’s history. Warming temperatures aid the spread and extend the range of dengue, a mosquito-borne killer disease. The basic liberty to go outside is threatened too, as citizens in most US cities experience unbearable heat, as if they’ve moved south a state or two. The economic impacts are also frightening: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated the rate of billion-dollar climate events has more than doubled in the past 5 years compared to the 40-year average. From 1998 to 2017, the US sustained $1 trillion in economic damage from climate events, and some have even considered the possibility of a single “trillion-dollar storm.”
Era-by-era, national security efforts tend to flow toward adversaries that the public demands be stopped: Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, the Soviet Union in the Cold War, terrorists and insurgents after September 11th. So what happens when climate becomes America’s worst enemy?
Defense spending will change. Setting aside the mandatory spending that takes up roughly two-thirds of the federal budget (i.e. Social Security and Medicare), the Department of Defense budget is by far the largest expenditure on the annually-funded discretionary side of the ledger (about $700 billion per year). Climate activists and supporters will point out that US defense spending is more than that of the next seven countries combined, and demand some of that money be redirected to combat climate change.
If the US defense budget is the bill-payer for climate resiliency efforts, there will be pushback. Cold Warriors won’t like losing budget share to global warming countermeasures, and will argue that doing so would cause harm to soldiers fighting traditional enemies overseas.
The upside to devoting greater resources to this threat is that America should become more resilient to climate change at home. But the downside is that the US may achieve this greater internal stability at the cost of externalizing instability abroad—reducing the resources to be responsive enough to dampen conflict world-wide, as America has for decades.
Leif Ericson turned out to be little more than a Viking tourist, without lasting impact. Greta Thunberg’s landing seems more likely to drop anchor and spread widely. A majority may not yet be in Thunberg’s boat, but more and more are jumping onboard, and pretty soon, “national security” may just have a very different meaning to Americans.