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How to Prioritize Climate Change in U.S. National Security

By Kate Guy

From the outset of Joe Biden’s run for the American presidency, he pledged to look at national security with fresh eyes. Evolving systemic threats like climate change, often relegated to the portfolios of environmental experts and science agencies, were repeatedly mentioned in his plans to remake U.S. defense and foreign policy. “Climate change is the existential threat to humanity,” he often reiterated in the closing days of his campaign.

Now, with the first members of President-elect Biden’s national security team announced, it’s clear that he has taken the first steps to make good on these campaign promises. In the past few years, nominees like Blinken, Sullivan, and Haines have each referenced the need for the U.S. to prioritize addressing climate change in its approach to global challenges. And with the creation of a cabinet-level Presidential Climate Envoy, long-time climate security leader John Kerry will sit in every meeting of the National Security Council with his eye trained on climate threats.

But what will it take to actually make good on soaring commitments to elevate climate change as a core U.S. national security priority? The implementation of this idea must go far beyond senior appointments and fundamentally shift how the security community plans for systemic threats. Protecting ourselves from climate change will ultimately require a reorientation of the substance, structure, and strategy of U.S. security policy.

First and most obviously, security experts must begin to integrate an acute understanding of climate threats into the substance of all briefings, analyses, and policies. The Pentagon and intelligence community have increasingly warned that climate change will have negative impacts on the stability and security of U.S. interests around the world. It’s imperative that these trends are considered as a core input to security decision-making. 

Thanks to the wonders of modern data science, we have highly sophisticated climate models predicting how small changes in global temperature might affect local environments. Foresight projections show that food, water, and resource systems will be destabilized in a changing climate, posing severe risks to human settlements and livelihoods. In the recent Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change report, I worked with an esteemed panel of security leaders to project how climate change could interact with existing security threats in each region of the world. These types of climate projections are necessary to understand evolving threats and motivations, from how ISIS is using regional droughts to swell its ranks, to how melting glaciers in the Arctic are being exploited by newly aggressive Russia and China. Without the integration of climate risks into security planning, U.S. leaders are blind to the real situations playing out on the ground.

Second, the substantive integration of climate threats will require a rethink of the structures underlying U.S. security policymaking. Climate insecurities do not delineate between borders or subjects, and so a siloed government approach to the issue would quickly fall short. Preventing climate-induced disasters necessitates high-level communication between the defense, diplomatic, development, scientific, and intelligence communities. Few interagency structures exist to facilitate this degree of regular, cross-disciplinary interaction, especially on typically undervalued environmental threats. The Biden Administration, through the National Security Council and/or newly created Presidential Envoy, should regularly convene an interagency working group on climate security threats. Likewise, each federal agency should install positions tasked with understanding and integrating climate threats across their departments (specific proposals for each agency can be found in the Center for Climate and Security’s 2019 report, A Climate Security Plan for America).

This type of all-hands-on deck structure, however, will require many more climate hands than currently exist across the security community. Few leaders in foreign policy were required to study the science or politics of climate change at university; and the historic siloing of environmental topics means that few have direct experience with the issue. This is one of the many areas where the security community faces a generational gap: with young leaders outpacing the old in their knowledge of and dedication to solving climate challenges. High-ranking officials must quickly fill these gaps, by requiring climate literacy in all managerial positions, prioritizing applicants with scientific or environmental degrees, and offering training programs to retool their agencies to address the problems of the future.

Finally, these investments in policy and staff will be weak if not underpinned by a sharp, coherent strategy. If the aim of the security community is to prepare for and prevent the worst risks associated with climate change, this approach will require dedicated objectives, targets, funding, and incentives to move the bureaucracy forward. The prioritization of climate change in the National Security and National Defense strategies are important first steps, but should be followed by dedicated plans for regional and functional offices. A simple checklist approach to a problem as tangled as climate change isn’t going to cut it; each member of the security community must see the implementation of climate objectives, including decarbonization and resilience, as central to their mission. 

The good news is that the formulation of an interagency climate security strategy can be an important “forcing mechanism,” allowing the otherwise slow security apparatus to make early improvements in substance and structure. No doubt there will be unpredicted crises and fires that crop up along the way, particularly when dealing with the realities of climate change, but cross-disciplinary teams can be some of the most resilient and responsive to real-world shocks.

The incoming Biden Administration has made historic commitments to reimagine security policy, and they could not come at a more important moment in confronting the global climate challenge. If the team gets this reorientation right, it could serve as a model for a 21st Century approach to confronting all strategic risks, in the US and abroad. But if climate threats fall short of proper prioritization and integration, as prominently pledged, many Americans could bear the tragic brunt of those consequences.

Kate Guy is a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for Climate and Security, Deputy Director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, and a DPhil Candidate and Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford.

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