In policy circles, the advisory board’s 2007 report — titled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” — made a splash. At the request of Sen. John Warner of Virginia and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton on New York, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked the Defense Department to assess climate security risks and include them in its national security strategy.
The report pointed out that climate change was likely to hit poor farmers hard, leading to migrations and the destabilization of many countries, particularly the 40% projected to face water scarcity in coming decades. All the while, extreme weather disasters would require military intervention and drive up costs of military equipment and bases. To take one example, the gigantic Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, essential to the war in Afghanistan, was only a few feet above sea level, and faced inundation.
“They weren’t saying climate change was driving everything, but at the same time it was responsible for multiple threats,” said Levy of Columbia University, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report’s chapter looking at conflict risks from global warming. “It was a crucial innovation to have military leaders saying this.”
The year the report was published was also a record-low year for Arctic sea ice (2012 has since broken that record). That roused the U.S. Navy, retired U.S. Navy Admiral David Titley told BuzzFeed News, because of the sudden prospect of a more nationalist Russia charging across an opening North Pole.
“For the Navy, climate change was an obvious one to worry about,” said Titley, a meteorologist who later joined the military panel that updated the CNA report in 2014. “We tend to float things at sea level.”
Today, those warnings look prescient. A 2014 University of Colorado report linked hotter temperatures to conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Another study in March found that Syria’s ongoing civil war was helped along by a 2011 drought sharpened by global warming. In July, the Defense Department supplied the Senate with a report concluding climate change promised rising seas, famine, and floods, all threats to national security.
Goodman, meanwhile, has moved on to a related problem: saving the oceans from global warming. Her office is a block from a statue of Commodore John Barry, the father of the U.S. Navy, the service that Goodman says best connects her environmental work at the Pentagon to ocean conservation today.
“The whole field of ocean science got started by the Navy in the run-up to World War II, and that is where a lot of the pioneering work on climate and the environment began,” she said. “The ocean is the heartbeat of the planet, and it is where we are going to see a lot of climate change play out.”
But she hasn’t forgotten her military roots. “I’m proud of ‘threat multiplier’ and kind of delighted every time I hear someone say it,” Goodman said, with the air of a parent watching a child break the finish line. “We’ve been hearing it a lot lately. I’m sure we will hear it again.”