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The Biden Administration & Climate Security: Week One

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What a week for climate security! In his inaugural address on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said, “The cry for survival comes from the planet itself,” acknowledged the “climate is in crisis,” and promised “we will be judged…by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.” Not long after he was sworn in, President Biden signed an Executive Order to rejoin the Paris Agreement–recommendation 1.13 in our Climate Security Plan for America (CSPA). On Thursday morning, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry hit the ground running in a meeting with world leaders, promising “humility and ambition” in tackling the climate crisis.   

This week, the Senate also held hearings on key national security and cabinet nominees–many of whom recognized climate risks in their opening remarks. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines called climate change a “critical transnational threat,” while Secretary of State-Designate Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury-Designate Janet Yellen both termed the threat “existential.” Homeland Security Secretary-Designate Alejandro Mayorkas noted his agency’s role in tackling  “longer-term threats like climate change”, stating that being “prepared for and resilient to natural disasters” requires work with state, local, tribal and territorial governments. Selecting cabinet officials who will put climate change front and center in national security discussions is exactly what we called for in the CSPA first pillar: Demonstrate Leadership

As the hearings progressed, nominees faced questions related to how they will manage climate security risks. Highlights included Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin promising to appoint a person on his staff to help him “focus on the issue” of climate change; Secretary-Designate Yellen also promised to appoint a senior official at Treasury to oversee the issue. Secretary-Designate Blinken suggested working together more closely with India on mitigating climate change, while DNI Haines argued that while China is adversarial in some areas, climate change is one area of potential cooperation. 

For more details of questions and answers related to climate security, see below: 

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA): “I’m just going to ask you straight out–is China under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party an adversary of the United States?”

DNI Haines: “…China is adversarial and an adversary on some issues, and on other issues we try to cooperate with them…whether in the context of climate…”

Secretary of State-Designate Antony Blinken

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT): “How can we strengthen our ties with India and strengthen their resolve to defend democratic interests in the region?”

Mr. Blinken: “I think there are many ways in which we can deepen that cooperation to pursue the path that successive administrations have put us on. One area I think that has a lot of promise and maybe even necessity is actually climate at the current rate things are going. India is poised over the next two or three decades to catch up to China in terms of the emissions that it produces. At the same time, as you know, Prime Minister Modi has been a very strong advocate for looking at renewable energy and different technologies. I think there’s a very strong potential for our countries to work together in that area.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT): “What are the capacities that State doesn’t have today that it needs to be able to compete if the threats that are posed to the United States in the next 50 years are, by and large, not conventional military threats. What does State need to be able to respond?”

Mr. Blinken: “I really appreciate the question. I think it goes to the heart of the mission…We need to have the expertise in global health and we need to have the expertise in climate…And that’s something that if confirmed in this job, I’m going to spend some real time on and working with this committee to make sure that we have the ability to do that.”

Senator Edward Markey (D-MA): “Thank you for all of your work on climate change. I think it’s just a huge historical change of direction and — and congratulations on having John Kerry be named as your partner on those issues. How quickly is the Department going to be able to move in order to make sure that we have made climate change a top issue and that would put climate justice at the center of what we’re advocating for globally?”

Mr. Blinken: “Well, given Secretary Kerry’s leadership, I suspect immediately.”

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR): “I want to close on climate. And one of the tools we have internationally is…the use of international finance to support a conversion to renewable energy around the world..we’re all at risk if we fail in this effort. And will the administration push the international lending institutions we participate in to stop funding new fossil fuel projects?”

Mr. Blinken: “Yes, this is an area we want to focus on. We want to make sure that we are not doing anything to facilitate countries exporting dirty technology around the world, including something we see from China, which is in part through the Belt and Road Initiative and by other means getting this technology around the world. It should not benefit from international financing to do that.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL): “…also well positioned to lead the way on developing the kind of clean energy technology that can accelerate our fight against climate change, one of the biggest national security threats of our time and reduce the military’s reliance on fossil fuel…? If confirmed, how would you lead DoD to reduce its emissions and develop the sort of breakthrough energy technology that can make forward deployed troops less reliant on few delivery and other energy related sustainment?”

Secretary Austin: “Well, I think while we’re, you know, we are no doubt doing some things on all of our installations now to — to reduce our energy consumption and reduce our carbon footprint. I think there’s more that we can do. You know, we — we consume a lot of energy and so I think that you know, we can have a substantial impact if we were. We’re focused on the right things. You know that this affects us in a lot of ways. I think that, you know, if we look at the utilization of, you know, on installations and in other capacity utilization of electrical vehicles and you know, reducing the amount of energy that we’re consuming in just a number of other things. You know, we can make a pretty substantial impact on our overall effort here. So I look forward to working with the administration and my colleagues and working with the department to really improve our performance thus far. I’ll appoint a specific person on my staff to help me focus on this issue and to coordinate issues within a department and within the services as well.

Secretary Austin also responded in writing to a series of questions ahead of his hearing. The following are relevant to climate security:

Question: Over the last few years, hurricanes have resulted in more than $10 billion in damage to military installations across the U.S. How would you assess the readiness and resource impacts on DOD from recent extreme weather events?

Answer: Severe weather and other climate change-related disasters have degraded DoD’s ability to operate and train at certain installations, imposing significant costs. If confirmed, I will work with Department leadership, the Joint Staff, and the Military Services to develop a full understanding of the national security implications of extreme weather and climate change, taking a comprehensive approach that includes impacts on operations, readiness, installations, equipment, infrastructure, and force development.

Question: Based on these readiness and resource impacts, do you believe it necessary to use more resilient designs in DOD infrastructure?

Answer: Yes. It is common sense, cost effective, and arguably necessary to promote resilience in DoD infrastructure and supporting communities. If confirmed, I will work with DoD leadership to ensure our standards continue to improve.

Question: What threat do Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic pose to U.S. interests?

Answer: Climate change is drastically altering the natural environment of the Arctic–and the strategic balance. This is fast becoming a region of geopolitical competition, and I have serious concerns about the Russian military buildup and aggressive behavior in the Arctic–and around the world. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about Chinese intentions in the region. If confirmed, I will assess the situation and consult allies and partners on the strategy, posture, and equipment required to ensure a stable and open Arctic, as well as to protect the homeland, our economic interests, and deter aggression.

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