A Bias for Action on Climate Change: An Addendum to the Command’s Planning Guidance for 2020

By Tom Persico

The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is its highest-ranking officer. He is responsible for laying out the agenda in the years to come in a publication called the Commandant’s Planning Guidance. The 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps calls for a new fighting model to be a better fighting force in the future. However, it fails to mention anything to do with climate and its effect on the USMC’s ability to fight and win.

If the Marine Corps is to continue being an effective fighting force, climate change must be atop the list of present and future foes. The U.S. military needs to adapt to new causes of conflict stemming from the consequences of global climate change, including water-related conflict, climate change facilitated radicalization, and the destruction of crucial military materiel.

Water-related conflict

If the need for obtaining clean, usable water is not addressed, the U.S. Department of Defense will inevitably be on the back foot when conflicts come to bear.Instead, the Marine Corps must meet this crisis head-on.

According to a United Nations report on clean water and sanitation, outlining the progress made on Sustainable Development Goal 6, more than 800 million people are still without basic water services. Washing one’s hands without water can mean an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, while a lack of water for basic services can also be a catalyst for deadly conflict. Drought, stemming from global climate change, is a major culprit. Richard Damania, a lead economist at the World Bank, predicts that without adequate water, economic growth in the most stressed parts of the world could decline by six percent of GDP. His findings conclude that as regions and nations run short of water, economic growth will decline and food prices will spike, raising the risk of conflict and inducing mass migration. The USMC, as it plans for the years ahead, needs to acknowledge that conflict stemming from climate change is an issue worthy of acting on, and worthy of including in the Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

Climate change facilitated radicalization

Prior conflicts around the world suggest a causal link between climate change and human conflict. “The 2006–2007 drought in the greater Fertile Crescent—present-day Iraq, southeastern Turkey, western Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and parts of Egypt—was the longest and most severe drought ever recorded. In the wake of the drought, agricultural collapse pushed rural people into cities in large numbers, causing competition over resources and jobs and exacerbating decades of poor governance. Although conflicts rarely arise from a single cause, environmental effects have a real and tangible effect on the individuals they come across. Droughts do have consequences on vulnerable populations. As temperatures continue to rise, cities will become less inhabitable, leading to the massive migration of peoples into new areas. Mass migration could be the impetus for a new conflict—one that the United States Marine Corps will one day have to face.

The 21st-century battlespace will require as much research and development on climate change and conflict prevention as it does amphibious landings and sector defensive positions. The future of the Marine Corps should be one seeking to stop conflict before it begins, and one way to do this is to plan for the effects of climate change. 

Destroying crucial military materiel

On April 30, 2019, nominees for the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Admiral William Moran and General David Berger, testified to the dangerous nature that climate change poses to installations around the world. Their testimony came in the wake of Hurricane Florence, which devastated parts of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. When asked by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) if we should act to combat future weather-related threats to Navy and Marine Corps installations, General Berger stated, “I’d agree, sir. The two biggest challenges are the rising water levels and severe storms that roll up the coast and through our bases and stations. I think the new standards for construction, for military construction, are absolutely critical…We need to look at the construction standards of the buildings to make sure that they’ll survive what the climate is going to throw at them.” Military installations are at stake, the lives of servicemen and women who live on base close to the shore are on the line, and unit readiness will be affected by climate change as the effects become worse. In the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, there needs to be a plan on how to better safeguard our installations from the impact of hurricanes and severe storms. This issue is a matter of high cost, not just of dollars and cents, but more importantly, that of lives lost to climate change.


Although climate change is recognized as a force divider, the Commandant’s Planning Guidance suggests little is being done to curb and account for its effects. As discussed above, this is a misstep because there are serious operational concerns if climate change is left to fester and destroy nations, people, and structures in its path.

The Marine Corps must be prepared to create new policies and initiatives to tackle conflict stemming from climate change. Only if we heed these warnings being issued now can we minimize the risks. The 21st-century battlespace is unlike any the Marine Corps has seen before, but with proper planning and preparation, we can succeed, just as the Marine Corps has in other battles over the years.

Tom Persico is a judge advocate in the Marine Corps stationed in Quantico, Virginia. He graduated from Rutgers University and the Elisabeth Haub School of Law with a J.D. and certificates in Environmental Law and International Law.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.