Veterans are concerned about climate change, and that matters

News that the Trump administration plans to create a panel devoted to challenging government warnings about climate change has been met with opposition from members of the U.S. military. Citing concerns about the effects of climate change on national security, more than four dozen top-ranking military officials came out in opposition to the Trump administration’s plan.

Military concern about the effects of climate change on national security is not new. Months before former Secretary James Mattis left the Defense Department in January 2019, he acknowledged that increased coastal flooding and tropical storms, resulting from rising average global temperatures, pose a threat to as many as one-third of U.S. military bases.

In addition to its potential effect on military infrastructure, climate change could pose threats to global security. A recent IPCC report predicts that rising global temperatures, drought and other extreme weather patterns are likely to become more frequent and severe across the globe. This could create competition and conflict for increasingly scarce water and agricultural resources, particularly in the developing world or in fragile states.

Although climate change could pose major risks to national security, few have asked current and veteran members of the armed forces what they think about climate change and its potential effects. Our new survey research finds that most U.S. veteran members of the armed services in our sample think that the planet is warming, and many of them are concerned about what climate change means for U.S. security.

Combating climate change: A call to arms?

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, pictured Nov. 26, 2018 in Doral, Florida. Brynn Anderson/AP Photo
Past and present members of the military are more likely to support politically conservative views than politically liberal ones. But to characterize the military as uniformly conservative misses an important element of nuance.

Numerous surveys of active duty service members and veterans in the early 2000s demonstrated that enlisted members of the military tended to vote in patterns similar to their civilian counterparts. However, recent research has pointed to a shift rightward within the military and found that higher-ranking officers and younger vets are especially more likely to be conservative, identify as Republicans, and support President Trump than nonveterans.

Despite their conservative tendencies, there is reason to suspect that armed forces members are concerned about the effects of climate change – a position held most commonly by ideological liberals. Service members might, for example, have observed the impact of major storms or rising sea levels on the day-to-day functioning of military bases. Or they could have used weapons systems that run on renewable energy sources, including aircraft, tanks and solar energy-powered backpacks.

The Pentagon is continuing to take steps to address climate change, despite President Trump saying such preparation should stop. U.S. military personnel are thus likely to have more experience with climate change effects, solutions to it or both.

Our study

To study past and present military personnel’s attitudes about climate change, we conducted a survey between Jan. 17-21, 2019 of 293 U.S. active duty or veteran service members, recruited via the online service Lucid. While this sample is not perfectly representative of the military writ large, it is both ideologically and demographically diverse. Our sample closely resembles veteran population benchmarks on race, educational attainment, and, perhaps most importantly, party identification.