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Reaction: The New National Security Strategy and Climate Change

SouthPorticoThe Administration today released its first National Security Strategy. Click here for the official summary, and here for the full text. Notably, climate change is not listed as a national security risk in the document, though there are a few elements that relate to the subject. Below is the Center for Climate and Security’s out-of-the-gate reaction:

1. It is unfortunate that climate change is not being explicitly addressed as a national security threat in the National Security Strategy (NSS). Not least as the President¬† just signed a defense bill (2018 NDAA) that declared climate change a “direct threat” to national security (a bill that had strong support from the President’s party in Congress) and his own Department of Defense has been taking the issue very seriously. The passage of the NDAA demonstrated that there is, at the very least, a bipartisan consensus that climate change presents a threat to national security. This document does not acknowledge that consensus.

2. The NSS is primarily a political document, and not much of a strategy. Through signing the 2018 NDAA, the President has already acknowledged climate change as a security threat. And while it is strange for the NSS to not reflect that, the NSS will likely have a marginal impact on the day-to-day actions of the Department of Defense (DoD) to minimize climate change risks to its mission. The military will continue to do its job in managing all risks to the nation, including the climate-related types. Further, there is nothing in the NSS that precludes any departments and agencies from addressing climate change risks to security. For example, the DoD Directive on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience remains in effect, and there is now a law (the NDAA) requiring the DoD to report climate change risks back to the Congress. The NSS does not in any way contradict those policies.

3. The non-inclusion of climate change in the NSS should not only be seen as a repudiation of an “Obama-era” priority. Climate change has been viewed as a national security threat since the George W Bush Administration, as reflected in a number of intelligence and defense documents, including a 2008 National Intelligence Assessment, and that concern has grown into a strongly bipartisan one, as reflected in the 2018 NDAA. That makes the NSS seem quite outdated.

4. The document does not deny the problem entirely, however. It states “The United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while growing its economy.” That language signals a commitment to reducing the overall scale of the climate change threat through mitigation efforts. Further, the document hosts a section on “resilience,” including to “natural disasters, unconventional stresses, shocks, and threats to our economy and democratic system,” under which resilience to climate-exacerbated disasters, stresses and shocks could certainly fit. In other words, the lack of an explicit mention of climate change does not indicate that no work on climate change can happen under this Administration. It simply signals that the issue is not a political priority from a national security perspective. That’s unfortunate, and very problematic, but it should not be seen as political cover to stop ongoing efforts to address climate change-related risks.

5. Last but not least, the NSS signals to key U.S. partners and allies that climate change risks to national security, while not outright rejected, are simply not a priority. This comes just as many of those allies and partners have been increasing their calls for the international security community, including the Security Council, to address the threat.

In short, the NSS does not advance the bipartisan national security consensus on climate change. Indeed, it demonstrates a step backward. However, the document is vague enough, and the tide on the issue in the U.S. has changed so significantly, that it will likely have little effect on how the military and national security communities, on both sides of the aisle (or no side of aisle), address the threat. That said, here’s to hoping that the next version better captures this country’s national security consensus on the matter. Not least as the risks are growing with each passing year.

 


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