On September 21, 2016, the Obama Administration made two significant announcements related to climate change and national security – one which highlights the latest intelligence on the nature of the risk, and the second which lays the foundation for managing that risk across agencies. This included:
- A report from the National Intelligence Council (NIC): “Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change”;
- A Presidential Memorandum (PM): Climate Change and National Security, establishing an organizational framework for managing climate change risks to national security, to be be run by the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
These releases both reflect the reality of this accelerating risk, as identified by many in the bipartisan national security community to date, as well as practical next steps recommended by the Climate and Security Advisory Group.
The National Intelligence Council (NIC) report
The NIC report warns of both the very near-term security implications of climate change – including those that arise from “distinct extreme weather events” in the next five years – as well as likely risks on the twenty-year timescale associated with “broader systemic changes” such as sea level rise.
The report affirms what a growing national security consensus has made clear: climate change presents a “strategically-significant risk” to the United States. Indeed, the NIC report notes that the effects of climate change are already underway, and “are likely to pose wide-ranging national security challenges for the United States and other countries over the next 20 years.” It identifies six “pathways” for these effects:
- Threats to the stability of countries.
- Heightened social and political tensions.
- Adverse effects on food prices and availability.
- Increased risks to human health.
- Negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness.
- Potential climate discontinuities and secondary surprises.
The Presidential Memorandum (PM)
The NIC report, which outlines the key national security risks of climate change, was accompanied by the President’s issuance of a Presidential Memorandum (PM) on Climate Change and National Security, which outlines a near-term solution for how the U.S. government can “ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans [emphasis added].” In other words, the U.S. should go about managing national security risks as it always has, with the added benefit of having an improved understanding of the changing risk landscape.
Historically, as other risks to national security have risen to the fore (e.g. nuclear weapons proliferation), the U.S. government has often found it in its best interest to establish strategic interagency responses led by very senior leaders in the national security establishment. This has served the function of making sure that significant threats would be met quickly, coherently, and with all necessary hands on deck.
The PM on climate change and national security is a first step at doing just that. Indeed, it represents the highest level of action by the U.S. government (in terms of the seniority of the leadership assigned the task) to specifically address the national security implications of climate change – designating the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (both Assistants to the President) to manage the problem. This marks an important elevation of the issue, perhaps driven by a confluence of events: evidence of climate-related security risks already underway, growing concerns in the military and intelligence communities, and a clear bipartisan consensus. It also very closely reflects a key recommendation from senior national security and defense leaders in the recently-released Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG) Briefing Book (pg 7), which calls for:
…a senior climate-security leadership position on the NSC Staff, reporting directly to the National Security Advisor, to help integrate plans to address climate-related impacts on national and international security priorities.
To drive a whole-of-government approach that is commensurate to the risk, the PM also calls for the creation of a “Climate and National Security Working Group” which includes representatives “at the Assistant Secretary or equivalent level, or their designees.” The job of this high-level working group will be to coordinate information-sharing on climate change and national security risks, as well as “inform the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans.” This is consistent with another CSAG recommendation (1.9, on page 10) aimed at creating a more coherent, high-level response to this major challenge:
1.9. Establish an interagency Climate Change and Security Group, led by the Senior Climate and Security Director at the NSC, that includes officials of relevant departments and agencies at the Assistant Secretary level or equivalent with an emphasis on strengthening data monitoring and assessment methodologies, and integrating approaches within and across agencies to better anticipate and respond to climate change and security issues;
Though some U.S. government departments and agencies are already doing a lot to incorporate these risks into their planning (see the 2016 DoD Directive on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience), this PM may help facilitate such actions across the U.S. government in a more comprehensive and coordinated way. In all, the PM marks a beginning of the more “comprehensive policy” called for by our bipartisan Climate Security Consensus Project, which will hopefully involve a larger scale of actions that are commensurate to the risk.
In response to the release of both the NIC report and the PM, members of the Center for Climate and Security staff and Advisory Board offered their own takes on the two documents:
Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, Co-Founders and Presidents, the Center for Climate and Security:
Though there are other immediate security risks the U.S. must pay close attention to, including terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. The intelligence community is telling us that climate change is already impacting our security in a very significant way, and will continue to make the U.S. less secure over the next twenty years. The Presidential Memorandum, which closely tracks our recent recommendations from senior national security and defense leaders, is an important step towards better organizing our government to deal with that risk.
General Ronald Keys, U.S. Air Force (ret), Advisory Board member with the Center for Climate and Security, Chairman of the CNA Advisory Board and former Commander of Air Combat Command:
The Presidential Memorandum and National Intelligence Council report are certainly a step in the right direction, and congruent with what we have been analyzing and recommending. It is a needed effort to get all the interested parties on the same sheet of music, and to make sure there is a whole of government approach that leverages individual agency actions and prioritizes filling gaps, including in intelligence. Some additional next steps are outlined by our Climate and Security Advisory Group – including the need to put key people in charge to drive action on climate and security issues (at the White House, National Security Council, and relevant agencies). Some of this is going to take time… but we have precious little left.
Rear Admiral Jonathan White, U.S. Navy (ret), Advisory Board member with the Center for Climate and Security, CEO of the Ocean Leadership Consortium, and former Oceanographer of the Navy:
I welcome the President’s new policy and actions regarding climate change and national security. The national security community must come together and lead concrete efforts to better understand and counter the risks that our changing climate and ocean present to global (and thus national) security. If we do not act now, these changes will undoubtedly exacerbate geo-political instability and compound security concerns around the world, and reduce the ability of the United States and our allies to respond to threats as our own security infrastructure is compromised.
Hon. Sherri Goodman, Advisory Board member at the Center for Climate and Security, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security), founder of the CNA Military Advisory Board and a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center:
I applaud the announcement by the President of increased efforts to combat the national security risks of climate change. The Presidential Memorandum and National Intelligence Council report make clear that we must act today to reduce risks to our nation, our troops and our military installations. As the CNA Military Advisory Board has stated, since 2007, climate change is a threat multiplier for instability and threatens our daily lives as sea levels rise, storms surge, and drought grips even more key agricultural regions of the world.
These common sense efforts create a “whole of government” approach to ensure that climate risks are integrated across foreign policy and national security strategy, policy and planning processes, enabling the US to continue its essential international leadership on climate change. This will enable future generations of Americans to lead safer, healthier lives in resilient communities.
Rear Admiral David W. Titley, USN (ret), Advisory Board member at the Center for Climate and Security, Founding Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, and former Oceanographer of the Navy:
I was happy to see that much of the wording of the Presidential Memorandum reflects similar themes to our recently released Bi-Partisan Statement on Climate Security. The direct and indirect impacts of climate change will magnify and accelerate the existing risks to our security, while at the same time pressurize our Defense infrastructure and its ability to respond to future crises.
General Gordon Sullivan, USA (ret), member of the Climate and Security Advisory Group, former Chief of Staff of the Army, and former President of the Association of the U.S. Army:
I know some people are not convinced about climate change, but one of the lessons I’ve learned in life is you will never have 100 percent certainty about everything. The potential national security implications of climate change would be destabilizing in an already unstable world.
For me, climate change – bringing extreme heat, severe weather, drought and disease – is inevitable unless we change the way of doing business. A decision requiring the federal government to consider the impacts of climate change with developing national security polices is a prudent step, just as our national security policies are shaped by other threats.
Our challenge as a nation is to do everything we can to prevent a potentially destructive threat, and to carefully weigh what steps we must take if we fail.
Shiloh Fetzek, Senior Fellow for International Affairs at the Center for Climate and Security:
Taken together, the Presidential Memorandum and National Intelligence Council report represent the kind of comprehensive, multi-agency responses all national governments should have in place to anticipate and manage the serious hazards and threats that climate change poses to National Security. The actions and priorities outlined in these documents lay the groundwork for the next Administration to continue to address this non-partisan security issue robustly, which will ultimately help preserve US national security and international security as the climate changes in coming decades. Without this level of commitment and integration, the US risks being caught off-guard by climate-related crises that may have grave regional and geopolitical consequences, like the conflict in Syria.
Following the NIC report and PM, the U.S. government will need to take the subsequent step of building both the leadership and institutional capacity necessary for comprehensively tackling climate risks to national security.
See the Climate and Security Advisory Group Briefing Book for a list of further recommendations along these lines.