5 Ways Climate Change Will Impact The US Military

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Airmen with the 379th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron pump water from a flooded common living area to an area with less impact on the local population, Dec. 13, 2009 in Southwest Asia.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Sharon Singer

Amid the celebratory mood of the Coast Guard Academy’s commencement ceremony May 20, President Obama told cadets in his keynote speech that they hold a special distinction in America’s maritime history — one that means new dangers and responsibilities.


“You are part of the first generation of officers to begin your service in a world where the effects of climate change are so clearly upon us,” Obama said. On a deceptively beautiful day on the New London, Connecticut, campus, the president went on to highlight several ways global climate change will impact America’s military in the coming years.

“I’m here to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to national security,” Obama told the graduates. “And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country, so we need to act and we need to act now.”

From melting Arctic ice to more severe storms and longer wildfires, here are several effects these changes will have on national and global security.

1. More humanitarian missions around the world.

Obama cautioned that climate change is resulting in more severe storms globally, which will increase the frequency that America’s military will need to respond to disaster areas with significant humanitarian relief. The president referred to the ferocious November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines, killing 6,000 people and impacting 14 million, according to UNICEF.

“No single weather event can be blamed solely on climate change, but Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines gave us a possible glimpse of things to come,” Obama said. “One of the worst cyclones ever recorded, thousands killed, many more displaced, billions of dollars in damage, and a massive international relief effort that included the United States military and its Coast Guard.”

2. More disaster response missions at home.

The reason Superstorm Sandy left so much of lower Manhattan under water in 2012 is because the sea level in New York Harbor is a foot higher than it was a century ago, the president explained. “During Sandy, the Coast Guard mounted a heroic response along with our National Guard and Reserve, but rising seas and strong storms will mean more disaster response missions,” Obama said.

3. A threat to the readiness of military forces.

“Climate change poses a threat to the readiness of our forces,” the president said. “Many of our military installations are on the coast, including of course our Coast Guard stations. Around Norfolk high tides and storms increasingly flood parts of our Navy base and an air base. In Alaska, thawing permafrost is damaging military facilities. Out west deeper droughts and longer wildfires can threaten training areas our troops depend on.”

Given these effects, Obama continued, politicians who insist they care about military readiness should also be paying closer attention to the problem of climate change. Just as it is the military’s duty to protect civilian populations, the military should strengthen the infrastructure of its own bases and natural barriers to withstand the elements.

4. More competition for resources.

Rapidly melting sea ice is changing the landscape of the Arctic and its coastline, and creating access to new areas of resources, Obama warned. “We’re witnessing the birth of a new ocean, new sea lanes, more shipping, more exploration, more competition for the vast natural resources below it,” he said.

5. Greater likelihood for civil strife.

As rising sea levels flood low-lying land and more severe droughts worsen food and water shortages, the world can expect a rise in migrating refugees, helping lead to new tensions.

“Around the world climate change increases the risk of instability and conflict,” Obama said. For instance, the terrorist group Boko Haram has exploited Nigeria’s severe drought to wrest control of the country’s northeast, Obama explained. In Syria, similar conditions leading to crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the initial unrest that gave way to civil war.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

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However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

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