A War Plan Orange For Climate Change

By Commander Timothy McGeehan, U.S. Navy

Evolving through many iterations, War Plan Orange described the major phases anticipated in a war in the Pacific. The plan identified required capabilities, informed force structure planning, and justified budget submissions. In general, the war played out as expected, and War Plan Orange proved a blueprint for victory.

Planning for the long-term implications of climate change today is as important as planning for a major Pacific conflict was in the last century. To address climate change, the Department of Defense (DoD) and Pacific Command (PaCom) in particular need a 21st-century War Plan Orange.

Climate Change and Conflict

A rapidly growing body of research links climate change to unrest and conflict around the world. While climate change is rarely seen as the only cause, it is frequently considered a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates preexisting issues and contributes to both intra- and interstate conflict. Its far-reaching effects are summarized in the “2014 DoD Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap”:

Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

Some of the most profound effects will be felt in the Asia-Pacific. In 2013, then-PaCom Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear identified climate change as the biggest long-term security threat in his area of responsibility. He explained that the associated upheaval “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.” 1

Rising Temperatures, Rising Threats

The planet is warming. According to the World Meteorological Organization, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. 2 Increasing temperatures affect human health through heat stress, decreased agricultural yields, and expanded geographic ranges of disease vectors (rodents and insects). 3 Rising temperatures also will take an economic toll on the Asia-Pacific. By 2030, India and China could see annual gross domestic product losses totaling $450 billion resulting from the impact of summertime heat on human work capacity. 4 The heat also will increase the demand for cooling and air conditioning, challenging fragile, overworked power grids and stressing energy supplies. 5

In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences released a report titled “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change,” which not only linked episodes of extreme temperature to climate change, but also extremes in precipitation. Precipitation patterns likely will continue to change temporally and spatially, with more pronounced and longer-lasting droughts in some locations and more intense highly localized precipitation in other areas, leading to significant flooding. 6 Besides threatening life and property, these events threaten agriculture and food security. 7

Climate change also drives slower-acting threats like sea level rise. 8 Melting polar ice sheets, thermal expansion of seawater, and other dynamic changes will increase water levels around the world, inundating low-lying coastal areas. 9 Even if these areas remain above the high-water line, they will be more susceptible to abnormally high tides and storm surges. Across the Asia-Pacific, populations are shifting from rural to urban areas, many of which lie along the water. As of 2014, almost 48 percent of the Asia-Pacific population was living in cities (compared to 26 percent in 1970), and many of the poorest settle in the most vulnerable areas like flood plains, raising the potential for acute humanitarian crises. 10

In addition, there are less obvious effects of climate change, such as retreating glaciers, which decrease the availability of freshwater downstream. Follow-on effects include reduced water to irrigate agriculture and decreased river flow at dams for hydroelectric power generation. 11 Offshore, rising temperatures bleach coral reefs (coral mortality has reached 50 percent in northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef) and oceanic uptake of CO2 is making the seawater more acidic, affecting the fisheries many nations rely on for food and livelihoods. 12

PaCom already faces the full range of natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific. Between 1970 and 2014, natural disasters accounted for more than 2 million deaths in the Asia-Pacific, 57 percent of the global total. 13 Admiral Locklear routinely told his subordinate commanders, “While you’re here you may not have a conflict with another military, but you will have a natural disaster that you have to either assist in or be prepared to manage the consequences on the other side.” The vastness of PaCom’s area of responsibility coupled with the increased frequency of natural disasters may spread thin PaCom’s forces as they execute humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) operations. These response operations are critical, as the emergent needs of domestic populations and/or migration of displaced persons can stress fragile governments beyond their ability to cope. This breakdown of the social contract sets conditions that lead to instability, which can quickly spread across national boundaries and lead to wider conflict. PaCom has a vested interest in maintaining stability: five of the seven U.S. collective defense treaties apply to nations in the region.

These climate change effects are not part of a distant future; they are happening now. Current PaCom issues include:

• Displaced people. In 2015 (the latest year with complete data), 19.2 million people were displaced by weather, water, climate, and geophysical hazards in 113 countries, more than twice as many as for conflict and violence. The majority were in South and East Asia. 14

• Water rights. Water rights associated with the rivers fed by shrinking Himalayan glaciers are coming into question as China dams the upper Mekong, which feeds Cambodia and Vietnam downstream. 15

• Water access. In September 2016, India threatened to suspend the Indus Waters Treaty over violence in Kashmir. If India suspends the treaty, which specifies how India and Pakistan (both nuclear powers) manage the Indus River Basin’s rivers and tributaries, it will cut off the flow to Pakistan and deny entire provinces already stressed by prolonged drought their sole water source. 16

• Food security. Warming western Pacific waters are driving vital fish stocks northward. In the South China Sea, this is bringing Vietnamese fishermen into Chinese-claimed waters. 17 In the Yellow Sea, this is bringing Chinese fishermen into contact with South Koreans, resulting in the October 2016 ramming and sinking of a South Korean Coast Guard boat by a 100-ton Chinese fishing vessel. 18

• Mass migration. From the Maldives in the Indian Ocean to Vanuatu in the Pacific, island nations are being threatened and populations are beginning to be displaced by rising sea levels. 19

While PaCom cannot address the root causes of climate change, it can posture itself to actively mitigate its effects and assist partners. There is sufficient guidance already in force to do so.

Opportunities for Power Projection

While climate change is divisive in U.S. politics, it is a unifying international theme. By stressing local governments beyond their capability and/or capacity to respond, it provides a new opportunity for PaCom’s international engagement and assistance. This will give PaCom access, which over time can become influence.

Even with a “whole of government” approach led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the face of operations likely will be PaCom forces. Only the military has the logistics, manpower, command and control, and overall organization to execute major operations. This military visibility provides a messaging opportunity that can boost PaCom’s image as the trusted partner of choice, while at the same time provide presence and increase stability during times of crisis.

Climate change also is a challenge against which the United States can partner with other nations where it is in search of common ground, like China. Opportunities for engagement and cooperation open dialog and build relationships and understanding that can help avoid future miscalculation.

PaCom should seize this opportunity for power projection. Per the “2015 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” HADR is power projection, and hospital ships like the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and Mercy (T-AH-19) executing medical aid missions can have as large an effect as kinetic operations. China has taken note and launched the Peace Ark with similar tasking. If PaCom does not respond to climate-related challenges in the Pacific, China will fill the vacuum, gaining prestige and influence at U.S. expense.

A Climate Change War Plan

PaCom should consider the following responses to prepare for climate change effects:

• Build flexible partnerships, agreements, and contingency plans to deal with the spectrum of climate-related disasters. This will avoid delays in responding to events, particularly in the early stages when critical infrastructure and communications may be unavailable. By preparing in advance, PaCom can establish regional logistics hubs, preposition supplies, create and rehearse rapid distribution plans, and reach agreements regarding the logistics of refugee movement and sustainment.

• Build partner resilience to the longer-term, slower-acting effects of climate change. PaCom should assist partner nations in building their capacity for “self-help” and mutual assistance. PaCom experts can work with partner nations to identify critical infrastructure at risk to sea level rise. Expanded assistance could include assisting partners in developing strategies to mitigate these vulnerabilities or even assisting in the construction of levees, breakwaters, or relocation to higher ground.

• Expand collective HADR expertise. The best way to prepare for HADR, as a unilateral force or as part of a coalition, is to train. Existing PaCom exercises like Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) and Cooperative Afloat Readiness Training are venues where HADR missions can be rehearsed. This will confirm interoperability of communications protocols, tactics, techniques, and procedures before the crisis. PaCom should seek inclusion of smaller nations, even those with modest capabilities. These overtures may increase U.S. access and these nations’ receptiveness to hosting temporary basing or logistics hubs in support of future military operations.

• Focus on the “enablers.” PaCom should advocate for investments that target HADR capability gaps. This should extend to nontraditional logistics and distribution capabilities. Recognizing the worldwide shortfall of amphibious combatants, PaCom should advocate for capabilities such as the expeditionary fast transport or expeditionary transfer dock that can deliver aid without tying up traditional amphibious ships, which are needed to meet global force management requirements elsewhere. 20 Likewise, PaCom should pursue enhanced environmental monitoring and prediction capabilities, to include long-range seasonal forecasting capabilities to identify hazardous environmental conditions in advance, giving longer lead times to stage equipment and forces for prompt response.

• Develop new concepts of operations (ConOps). Through iterative war gaming and experimentation, PaCom should develop ConOps to respond to the range of climate threats, including evaluating vulnerability and mitigating risk to PaCom bases, installations, supply chains, and training ranges. Responses should be customized, necessitating the creation, deployment, and employment of adaptive force packages (AFPs—tailored detachments made up of specific capabilities). AFPs ensure appropriate resources for the situation and allow husbanding of other capabilities for deployment elsewhere. 21

An Opportunity

Climate change effects will play an ever-increasing role in shaping the security environment. On 7 September 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper offered his assessment at the Intelligence and National Security Summit:

In the coming decades, an underlying meta-driver of unpredictable instability will be, I believe, climate change. Major population centers will compete for ever-diminishing food and water resources and governments will have an increasingly difficult time controlling their territories.

Neither DoD nor PaCom can negotiate with, deter, or preemptively attack a changing environment. They can, however, anticipate changes, posture forces, and develop capabilities to mitigate threats and seize emerging opportunities. War Plan Orange was successful because it bounded the problem and provided focus to prepare for war with Japan. Likewise, DoD and PaCom need a coherent and comprehensive planning effort both to prepare for the upheaval caused by climate change and to seek competitive advantages the situation may present. As Sun Tzu wrote, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

1. Bryan Bender, “Chief of U.S. Pacific Forces Calls Climate Biggest Worry,” Boston Globe, 9 March 2013.

2. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, “ State of the Climate: Global Analysis for Annual 2015,” January 2016, ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201513. World Meteorological Organization, “Provisional WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2016,” 14 November 2016, public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/provisional-wmo-statement-status-of-global-climate-2016.

3. World Health Organization, “Climate Change and Infectious Diseases” (2016), who.int/globalchange/publications/climatechangechap6.pdf.

4. Paul Brown, “Heat Stress to Wipe Billions of GDP in India, China,” Climate Change News, 20 July 2016.

5. Ibid.

6. EPA, “Climate Change Indicators: U.S. and Global Precipitation” (2016), epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-us-and-global-precipitation.

7. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Climate Change and Food Security: A Framework Document” (2008), fao.org/forestry/15538-079b31d45081fe9c3dbc6ff34de4807e4.pdf.

8. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, “ Global Warming and Hurricanes: An Overview of Current Research Results,” 12 October 2016, gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes/.

9. Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, “Regional Sea Level Scenarios for Coastal Risk Management” (2016), serdp-estcp.org/content/download/38961/375873/file/CARSWG%20SLR%20FINAL%20April%202016.pdf.

10. U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “Overview of Natural Disasters and Their Impacts in Asia and the Pacific, 1970–2014” (2015), unescap.org/sites/default/files/Technical%20paper-Overview%20of%20natural%20hazards%20and%20their%20impacts_final.pdf.

11. Javaid Laghari, “Climate Change: Melting Glaciers Bring Energy Uncertainty,” Nature 502, no. 7473 (30 October 2013).

12. World Meteorological Organization, “WMO Provisional Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2016,” ane4bf-datap1.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wmocms/s3fs-public/2016_WMO_Statement_on_the_Status_of_the_Global_Climate-14-11-16-ver2.pdf?ZmIaubFZknHEGDBpyxTBpTcrNotiDpDo. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Climate Change in the Pacific Islands,” (2011), fws.gov/Pacific/Climatechange/changepi.html.

13. Ibid.,16.

14. World Meteorological Organization, “Provisional WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2016,” 14 November 2016, public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/provisional-wmo-statement-status-of-global-climate-2016.

15. Michael Richardson, “Dams in China Turn the Mekong Into a River of Discord,” Yale Global Online (2009), yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/dams-china-turn-mekong-river-discord.

16. Michael Kugelman, “Why the India-Pakistan War over Water Is So Dangerous,” Foreign Policy, 30 September 2016. “Pakistan: Drought 2014-2016,” Relief Web (2016), reliefweb.int/disaster/dr-2014-000035-pak.

17. Marcus King, “Climate Change and Vietnamese Fisheries: Opportunities for Conflict Prevention,” Center for Climate and Security Briefer No. 26 (2015), climateandsecurity.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/climate-change-and-vietnamese-fisheries-opportunities-for-conflict-prevention_briefer-263.pdf.

18. Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research, “Impacts of Global Warming on Coastal and Marine Ecosystems in the Northwest Pacific” (2014), apn-gcr.org/resources/files/original/b458baeac9097ad1b8c318efef4e6a73.pdf. “Chinese Fishing Vessels Ram Korean Coast Guard Boat,” Maritime Executive (2016), maritime-executive.com/article/chinese-fishing-vessel-rams-korean-coast-guard-boat.

19. Greg Harman, “Has the Great Climate Change Migration Already Begun?” The Guardian, 15 September 2014.

20. Megan Eckstein, “Stackley: Would Increase SSN, DDG, Amphib Production Rate to Reach 350-Ship Navy,” USNI News, 1 December 2016, news.usni.org/2016/12/01/stackley-would-increase-ssn-ddg-amphib-production-rate-to-reach-350-ship-navy?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=dccf130dca-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-dccf130dca-230418361&mc_cid=dccf130dca&mc_eid=b57ed6f6e8.

21. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, “Navy Perspective on Joint Force Interdependence,” Joint Force Quarterly 76 (January 2015).

Commander McGeehan is a member of the information warfare community currently serving in Washington. He holds a PhD in physical oceanography and has served with the CNO Strategic Studies Group, CNO Strategic Actions Group, and Task Force Climate Change.



The Political Cimate

The federal government has no shortage of security assessments and high-level guidance that acknowledge climate change threats, including the “2014 Quadrennial Defense Review,” “2015 National Security Strategy,” and the Director of National Intelligence’s “2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment.” The 2015 defense appropriations bill contained a request that the Department of Defense (DoD) identify the most serious and likely climate-related security risks for each combatant command and how mitigation of these risks was integrated into planning processes. In 2016, DoD “mainstreamed” climate change with directive 4715.21, “Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience,” which required subordinate organizations to identify and assess the effects of climate change on the DoD mission, consider those effects when developing plans and implementing procedures, and anticipate and manage the associated risks.

Concern over climate change is not solely a U.S. military issue. For example, the United Kingdom’s “2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence Security Review,” Australia’s “2016 Defence White Paper,” and NATO’s “Resolution 427 on Climate Change and International Security” all acknowledge climate change-related threats. With such widespread concern, climate change should be a dispassionate apolitical issue, but it has become emotionally charged and politicized. Varying degrees of buy-in and support across DoD and Congress have turned climate change planning efforts into a disjointed patchwork of taskers, data calls, and reports, lacking a comprehensive overall plan and framework for addressing the challenges.

Pushback against Uncertainty

Much of the pushback against climate change focuses on the uncertainty associated with future climate projections. However, most critics don’t understand that the major source of uncertainty is in how to quantify the effects of future human behavior, not that “the science isn’t settled.” How the world population will act (and emit the greenhouse gases driving climate change) is based on a complex interplay of individual beliefs, lifestyles, economic considerations, domestic policies, and international agreements. Future innovation in alternative energy sources may shift emissions onto a lower trajectory, while advances in the efficient extraction of traditional fossil fuels (like hydraulic fracking) may do the opposite. Climate models provide a range of outcomes to account for these future variations. In doing so, they provide a valuable window to the future.

Unfortunately, any uncertainty with climate models often is used as an excuse to completely discredit them as planning tools. This is a double standard when compared to DoD’s other long-range planning efforts. The Joint Staff’s 2016 planning document, “Joint Operational Environment (JOE) 2035,” states:

JOE 2035 does not predict the future or attempt to forecast specific scenarios or events. Instead, it develops a range of possibilities about future conflict by re-imagining the set of factors and circumstances shaping the future security environment. Thinking about the future through the lens of various trends, conditions, contexts, and implications encourages an expanded understanding of the scope of the problems facing the Joint Force as well as promising avenues to pursue solutions, and supports a broader appreciation of the implications of change that will confront the future Joint Force.

No military plan is executed with perfect foreknowledge. The uncertainty associated with climate change projections is well within the bounds for useful long-range planning. In fact, using just the primitive models available at the time, a 1983 National Academy of Sciences report described several expected climate change effects, including melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, extreme temperatures, changing disease vectors, and a more accessible Arctic ocean with military implications, all of which have come to pass. 1

1. National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, “Climate Change: Report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee” (1983), www.nap.edu/catalog/18714/changing-climate-report-of-the-carbon-dioxide-... .



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