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U.S. President-Elect Biden and the Climate Security Nexus: Recommendations for the Way Ahead

By John Conger

In the wake of the declaration that Former Vice President Joseph Biden will become the next President of the United States, we must consider what this means for climate security.  Make no mistake, there will be significant consequences for climate change and for national security separately, but our focus at the Center for Climate and Security is their nexus.  We will be exploring this in significant detail in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to offer two thoughts in the wake of the election result.

First is that leadership matters.  One of the overarching goals of the Climate Security Plan for America, which represents the views of sixty-four senior retired flag officers, national security and intelligence experts, including eight retired four-star generals and admirals, was for the President to “demonstrate leadership” on climate and security.  In particular, this impressive group called for the President to “Make climate change a vital national security priority.” 

Presidents set the tone, and a President that makes it clear at the outset of his or her term that climate change should be deeply integrated into national security considerations will create ripples throughout the entire Administration.  This is the yardstick against which we will measure progress in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Second, the best way at this point to predict President-Elect Biden’s approach on climate security is to look at his published climate plan.  There are multiple references to national security and the international implications of climate change, but the climate security overview reads as follows:

Make climate change a core national security priority. Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that magnifies existing geopolitical and weather-related risks. To address our defense and intelligence leaders’ warnings about the threats climate change poses to global stability and security, Biden will elevate climate change as a national security priority. Specifically, he will:

  • Commission a National Intelligence Estimate on national and economic security impacts from climate change, including water scarcity, increased risks of conflict, impacts on state fragility, and the security implications of resulting large-scale migrations.
  • Direct the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to report to him annually on the impacts of climate change on defense posture, readiness, infrastructure, and threat picture, as well as the Defense Department’s strategy to manage those impacts.
  • Direct the National Security Advisor, working with the Secretaries of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and others, to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the security implications of climate change.
  • Invest in the climate resilience of our military bases and critical security infrastructure across the U.S. and around the world, to deal with the risk of climate change effects, including extreme weather events that caused over $8 billion in damages to Department of Defense bases in just the last year. Biden will direct the Secretaries of Defense and Energy to develop specific inventories of the most acute vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure due to climate change, and prioritize upgrades, hardening, and resilience investments to mitigate them.

We believe this is a great start.  Indeed, fulfilling these commitments would clearly reflect the demonstration of leadership for which the Climate Security Plan for America called. 

In our plan, we call for the establishment of climate change as a vital national security priority (CSPA 1.1), the creation of a whole-of-government climate security plan (CSPA 1.1), and dramatic increases in investments in infrastructure resilience (CSPA 4.1).  Moreover, Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement, which the CSPA embraces not simply for its impacts to emissions reductions (significant reductions in emissions are critical for security, as per our recent Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change), but importantly for the strategic benefits for American leadership and national interest (CSPA 1.13).

There are many more steps needed beyond this framework, and the CSPA provides an extensive set of recommendations.  For example, to further demonstrate leadership, we recommend that the new Administration establish senior climate security positions in the White House and key agencies such as Defense and State, and the appointment of leaders who understand the threat that climate change poses to national security.

In order to fully establish climate change as a vital national security priority, the security experts who developed the CSPA also provided multiple recommendations on how to better “Assess Climate Risks” – further elevating climate security analysis within the intelligence community, how to “Support Allies and Partners” – through the creation of Regional Climate Security Plans, and how to “Prepare for and Prevent Climate Impacts” – building U.S. resilience to climate risks through a Climate Security Infrastructure Initiative and reducing their scale and scope through an economy-wide Climate Security Prevention Policy.

Ultimately, we hope that the promising strategy articulated by the Biden Administration will incorporate these key elements. 

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