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A Climate Security Plan for America Part 1: Demonstrate Leadership

By John Conger

Part 1 of 4 in the Climate Security Plan for America Blog Series

In late 2019, the Center for Climate and Security-led Climate Security Advisory Group, a group of senior U.S. national security and military experts, including eight retired four-star generals and admirals, published the A Climate Security Plan for America.  These leaders outlined a comprehensive plan to elevate climate change as a security priority and offered recommendations in four broad categories.  This blog discusses the first, Demonstrating Leadership.

As we stated in the report, we believed that in order to successfully counter climate security challenges, it must be an articulated priority of the U.S. President.  Check.  President-elect Biden has repeated often that he seeks to make climate change “a core national security priority.”  He named former Secretary Kerry as his “climate envoy” with a seat on the National Security Council.  For his own part, Secretary Kerry’s initial comments on his new role have focused on the security threat posed by climate change. 

We also stated that climate impacts must be integrated into the security considerations of multiple federal agencies, not as an isolated issue, but as “a risk that informs and affects the security priorities with which these agencies wrestle on a daily basis.”  In other words, asking if climate change is a bigger threat than traditional security priorities is the wrong question.  Instead, ask how climate change affects the behavior of peer competitors or rogue nations, how it affects global stability, or the capability and capacity of our own military forces. 

When we advocated for leadership, we called on the Administration to “make climate change a vital national security priority.” Key recommendations included:

  • Create a Climate Security Plan for America – a whole of government plan across multiple agencies to tackle the threats posed by climate change.  In Biden’s campaign plan on climate, he promised to have the National Security Advisor lead this effort.
  • Appoint a standard bearer in the White House/ National Security Council to lead climate security efforts, with the ear of the President and the National Security Advisor.  The naming of Former Secretary Kerry to be the Climate Envoy certainly has the potential to fulfill this role.  We would need to see him take the lead in coordinating efforts across the government, working with the National Security Advisor, to achieve this end.
  • Acknowledge climate change as a national security priority and integrate it into a new National Security Strategy.  Biden has clearly done this, both in the campaign and now in the transition.  We look forward to seeing him follow through by integrating climate change into his security strategy and related documents.

So far so good.  The new Administration looks like it is on track with our first three recommendations.  The next set focused on personnel.

  • Appoint climate champions in security positions throughout government, both at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level.  Secretary Kerry is clearly a climate champion.  We believe it will be important to elicit the climate security views of nominees at Defense, State, Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Community during their nomination hearings.  It will be critical to ensure support from sub-cabinet nominees as well, and that is yet to be seen. 
  • Each federal agency that handles security matters should appoint senior climate security officials.  These recommendations extended well beyond Defense and State.  For example, we recommended creation of a National Intelligence Officer for climate security within the National Intelligence Council, and senior climate security positions at the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Energy. Here it may be too early to judge, but we hope to see this happen across the Administration.

Especially at this stage in an administration, personnel choices reflect policy preferences.  The priorities of these leaders will, of course, reflect those of the President, but their views will color the way they execute those priorities.  These will be the people that execute the President’s climate vision, and policy progress will move slowly if federal agency leaders don’t buy into it.

Finally, we included recommendations that the President should show international leadership.  Specifically, we recommended that he:

  • Make climate change a priority at the United Nations and within the UN Security Council.
  • Elevate climate change on the agenda at other international fora.
  • Rejoin the Paris Agreement.

President-elect Biden has clearly sent important signals, indicating that he will not only rejoin the Paris Agreement, but call for increased commitments in emissions reductions that go beyond the commitments in that document.  Interestingly, our signatories recognized the vital importance of voluntary emissions reductions to avoid future security consequences, but thought the most significant goal of rejoining the Paris Agreement would be to reclaim its international leadership position.  Leaving the Paris Agreement has diminished U.S. influence globally, exacting a cost in international stature for no gain.

It is clear that President-Elect Biden has met, or is on track to meet, many of the recommendations we outlined, but for him to truly “Make Climate Change a Vital National Security Priority”, there is a lot of hard work yet to come.

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