Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Working to protect people and our shared planet.

Battling National Security Threats from Climate Change

Lt. Col. Robert Levinson (ret.) now advises a key U.S. Senator on national security issues including those impacted by climate change.

Today key top military leaders, analysts and experts are joining the frontlines in the battle against climate change.

Rob Levinson, an extremely talented retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who served for decades in a variety of posts both in the United States and overseas, is now working on climate issues as a legislative assistant to a United States senator. He is focusing on defense, foreign policy and veteran’s affairs. Steeped in expertise and contacts, he has a keen sense of what is at stake — and how we can solve big problems.

This past week I got to meet with Rob and ask him about the intersection of climate change and national security.

Lt. Col. Robert Levinson (ret.) now advises a key U.S. Senator on national security issues including those impacted by climate change.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: You are an expert on national security. How does that connect to your work on climate change issues?

Levinson: My early interest has to do with the relationship between national security and energy.

I have been immersed in the Arab-Israeli conflict since I first could understand the conversations around my family’s dinner table. Over time it became clear to me that the U.S. policies in the Middle East were heavily tied to our dependence on oil from the region and this often requires tough choices where we have to balance our strategic interests and our values.

I have thought for a long time that getting us off of oil would be a good thing for U.S. national security.

Much later, as climate change began to emerge as an important issue, I realized that it wasn’t just important for environmental reasons but geostrategic ones as well. As the climate changes and produces things like droughts and floods and powerful storms, these things drive refugee flows, instability and conflict which then lead to national security problems that have the potential to involve the military where I spent the first 20 years of my career.

When I worked at Bloomberg after the Air Force, I began writing about this topic and learned more and more how climate change and the dependency on fossil fuels wasn’t just important at the strategic level, but operationally and tactically as well.

Air Force bases have suffered millions of dollars in damage to buildings and aircraft because of severe storm damage. The Navy is having to deal with sea level rise affecting its bases and new passages in the arctic as sea ice is reduced.

At the very tactical level many of our troops in places like Afghanistan and Iraq had to move fuel convoys around to supply their bases. More convoys mean more attacks by enemy forces and more Soldiers and Marines in harms’ way. So, there are very good, strategic, operational and tactical national security reasons to think about climate change and all that it entails.

With so much at stake, how do you go about the work to reduce the national security risks of climate change?

Working on defense and foreign policy issues puts a lot on my plate, but often these issues intersect with climate issues, energy issues, health issues and other environmental concerns. In those cases where there is a nexus, I work with my colleagues who have those portfolios and we try to wrestle our way through them and determine what the best course of action might be.

We all bring different expertise and experience to the table and often we all recognize that there aren’t easy answers to certain questions or obvious policy choices but tough tradeoffs to be made between competing priorities.

What are some of the other top national security threats from climate change?

As I mentioned before, things like severe weather, droughts, flooding, sea-level rise, intensified or brought about by climate change, often cause large numbers of people to pack up and move. This creates volatile circumstances as countries may seek to close their borders to refugees or alternatively have difficulty providing for large numbers of refugees who wind up crossing those borders.

A large refugee population can often create tensions with local communities. On a more tactical level, military installations face consequences from climate change as severe weather can damage buildings and equipment and threaten personnel.

On a day-to-day basis things like sea level rise and erosion or the melting of permafrost require heavy investments to maintain and operate critical military facilities.

What have been some of your biggest successes?

What I hope I have done, and will continue to try and do, is bring climate change into the national security conversation.

If I can help people understand that climate change isn’t just something important to people concerned about the environment, but that it has a major impact on national security concerns, then I’m making headway.

With any political or policy effort, there are times when you hit brick wall. Can you give us an example of that and how you pivoted to do something that worked better?

What I’m talking about is kind of a major pivot. For a fair amount of time, climate change, or the issue formerly known as global warming, was seen as the purview of so-called “tree huggers,” people just focused on environmental concerns and often almost exclusively the province of people on the left side of the political spectrum. Keeping it in that tight box always meant that policy progress would be limited. But once it was seen not just as an environmental issue but a national security one, the potential allies and advocates for policy shifts and programs expanded a great deal.

Alongside activists are now generals and admirals who might be supporting the same policies as environmentalists for very different reasons. Having a broad coalition of people from a variety of political perspectives always increases the chances that things will get done.

What are some of the upcoming national security issues around creating a sustainable future?

Many of the materials needed for batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and other technologies, are often concentrated in places like China or other nations that are not allies of the United States and this creates opportunities for adversaries to restrict our access to these material for political purposes.

In other cases, these materials are found in volatile regions or in places where their extraction causes serious environmental concerns. Alternative sources for these materials or alternatives to the materials themselves, must be found.

As you move ahead, are you looking for partners? Where and how can others help?

Others can help by highlighting those areas where climate change issues and national security issues intersect and driving those points home to the American people.

The most serious thing the government ever does is send young American people in uniform into harms way. This is never done lightly and it is something that all Americans of any stripe should care very deeply about.

Understanding that a changing climate poses increase risk to those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Guardians should also matter to every American.

What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on national security climate policy issues?

There is a lot more writing and thinking that should be done on the climate change and national security nexus. I would encourage people to research these issues and demonstrate the linkages with good solid empirical evidence.

Good policy only comes from first understanding the nature of the problem. You can’t solve problems you don’t really understand.

About the Author
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund (a DAF). She has worked directly with presidents, prime ministers, 48 governors, 85 Ambassadors, and leaders at all levels to successfully educate and advocate on key issues. In July, 2023 Mizrahi was appointed to serve as representative of philanthropy on the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. She has a certificate in Climate Change Policy, Economics and Politics from Harvard. Her work has won numerous awards and been profiled in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Inside Philanthropy, PBS NewsHour, Washington Post, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Sages of Today, and numerous other outlets. Mizrahi has published more than 300 articles on politics, public policy, disability issues, climate and innovations. The views in her columns are her own, and do not reflect those of any organization.
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