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A Presidential Perspective on Climate Change and Security

SouthPorticoBy Neil Bhatiya, Climate and Diplomacy Fellow, The Center for Climate and Security

In a wide-ranging story published today in the Atlantic, correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg analyzes the Obama Administration’s foreign policy record, and the particular mix of ideas, experiences, and emotions that underpin the President’s approach to the world. Over the course of several years, Goldberg has discussed global crises with the President, from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Among the fascinating details is an excerpt that reveals how the President tries to think of the varied threats facing the country:  

‘ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,’ he told me in one of these conversations. ‘Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we dont do something about it [emphasis added].’ Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because ‘it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.’

Instead of thinking of climate change as a threat separate from the multitude of problems facing American foreign policy, the President sees them as tightly linked; in his words, “this makes every other problem we’ve got worse.” In other words, it’s not about climate change competing with other pressing security priorities, such as a revanchist Russia, the conflict in Syria, or nuclear proliferation. It’s about the role climate change plays in exacerbating an already volatile security environment

This is not the first time the Administration has spoken out on the security risks of climate change.  The State Department has taken the threat seriously enough to empower a task force within the Department focused on climate fragility risk. The role that climate change plays as a “threat multiplier” and priority for U.S. foreign policy has been reflected in planning and guidance documents, from the National Security Strategy to the Quadrennial Defense Review to (most recently) the Department of Defense Directive on climate change adaptation and resilience. Administration officials, like Secretary of State John Kerry, have spoken of the Syrian drought as an important contributor to the scale and urban concentration of the anti-Assad protests which subsequently became a full-fledged civil war (an assessment which builds on a series of Center for Climate and Security publications in 2012, 2013, and 2015). Other high-level officials, like National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter have warned of the strategic consequences of climate change.

In his series of interview with Goldberg, Obama expounded on this theme, linking climate change to the myriad social factors that can contribute to state and societal instability:

Right now, across the globe, you’re seeing places that are undergoing severe stress because of globalization, because of the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media, because of scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades—because of population growth. And in those places, the Middle East being Exhibit A, the default position for a lot of folks is to organize tightly in the tribe and to push back or strike out against those who are different. A group like ISIL is the distillation of every worst impulse along these lines.

Nearing the end of its term, the Obama Administration is entering the final stage of its efforts to put in place policies to reduce the conflict and security risks from climate change impacts. This is the latest evolution in the U.S. government’s attention to the security implications of climate change, which goes back at least as far as 2003, during the first term of the George W. Bush Administration.

This most recent step, the Joint Statement between President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, clearly recognizes the links between climate change, state fragility, and national security. The leaders both agreed to continue to cooperate internationally to address these challenges throughout their defense, diplomacy and development policies, including through the G7. Importantly, this bilateral agreement reinforces the multilateral commitment at the G7 to more deeply address the intersection of climate change and state fragility. (For more on the cooperation between G-7 nations on climate change and fragility see the New Climate for Peace report and online toolkit.)

Another important policy action this week was the initial disbursement of $500 million to the Green Climate Fund, the main mechanism for the transfer of funds from developed states to developing ones to support climate change mitigation and adaptation projects, including in the most fragile states in the world.

Policy developments like these are important steps toward reducing the complex risks articulated by the President in his Atlantic interviews, and by past Administrations, both Republican and Democrat.  A future Administration will have to continue to build on this progress to ensure not only that the right policies are in place, but that the necessary resources are dedicated to implementing them. If not, the grim realities of instability that have loomed so large may likely consume a large part of the foreign policies of his successors.


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