This past August, in first a blunt report and then a trail of media appearances and press interviews, U.S. military and intelligence analysts made an announcement: The changing global climate now poses a threat to U.S. national security.
By way of explanation, the officials expressed alarm (though they expressed it in their usual calm, matter-of-fact tones) about the directly threatening consequences of such phenomena as rising sea levels and melting ice. Some key military bases could go underwater, other bases are jeopardized by increasingly extreme storms and in the Arctic there will be sea lanes to protect where until recently the sea had no lanes.
But more threatening, said spokespeople, would be climate change’s second-order effects: water problems, drought, food shortages, mass migrations, pandemics, civil unrest, political instability and relief emergencies. Any of them could demand a humanitarian response or even military intervention, stated a National Intelligence Council report, which would tax U.S. military resources and “result in a strained readiness posture.”
“It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, in a New York Times article. “These issues now have to be … wrestled with” in drafting national security strategy.
The announcement got wide attention — prompting discussions that understandably centered on military concerns and public policy. But it should interest business executives and company leaders for two different reasons, as well.
First, it comes from an unbiased bystander in the how-should-we-address-climate-change debate, yet it pointedly describes a cascade of varied real-world consequences. That makes it a more than usually persuasive argument for how significantly sustainability challenges will alter the way the world works — not just environmentally, but socially, politically and economically, too.
Second, it’s proof that you don’t need to care about fixing climate change — or other sustainability problems — in order to give it your full attention. (“We’re not in the business of mitigation,” said one top military leader.) The effects will be so great that one of the world’s largest and most powerful organizations plans to build strategy around it.
In the course of interviews for the Business of Sustainability research project and the special report in this edition of the Review, we heard from numerous CEOs and management thought leaders who are already well ahead of the military’s curve.