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A Climate Security Plan for America Part 3: Support Allies and Partners

By Erin Sikorsky

Part 3 of 4 in the Climate Security Plan for America blog series

See part 1, “Demonstrate Leadership,” here and part 2, “Assess Climate Risks,” here

As the Presidentially-mandated deadline approaches for US foreign policy agencies to integrate climate change into their regional and country strategies, it is a perfect moment to examine the recommendations in part 3 of our Climate Security Plan for America: Supporting Allies and Partners. The Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad tasked all agencies that “engage in extensive international work” to develop within 90 days “strategies and implementation plans for integrating climate considerations into their international work.” The EO was signed on 27 January, so the due date for the plans is April 27, just a few days after the US-led Earth Day Leaders Summit on climate change. 

Why is supporting U.S. allies and partners in building resilience to climate security threats so important? As the pandemic has shown, when it comes to transnational, actorless threats, we’re all in this together. Climate change vulnerabilities in other states can affect US national security directly or indirectly — whether by straining the governments of key allies and partners, creating openings for violent non-state actors to gain traction, or contributing to drivers of conflict and instability. Even developed countries are likely to need more assistance in developing resilience strategies in the coming years, as communities barely have time to recover from one shock when the next one hits. For example, just last week Australia saw record-breaking floods hit areas still recovering from last year’s record-breaking wildfires.

There are also realpolitik reasons for the United States to help other countries with climate resilience and adaptation. First, it can help make the case to developing countries, many of whom face the brunt of climate change effects without being responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions, that the United States has their backs. Instead of wagging its finger to chide countries about cutting emissions, the United States can act as a partner to help countries manage climate change effects. Second, if the United States doesn’t take the lead, it leaves the playing field open for competitors to step in. For example, when the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement, some Pacific Island nations turned to China for assistance instead. As an official from the Solomon Islands told NPR in 2019, “The show of lack of leadership by the current U.S. government in the fight against climate change is very discouraging not only to us but to all the low-lying island nations of the Pacific. Although China is one of the biggest CO2 emitters, it is showing leadership and commitment to help lead our global efforts against [climate change].”     

As with the first two pillars of the Climate Security Plan for America (pillar 1; pillar 2), the Biden Administration has already taken big steps toward implementing our recommendations in pillar 3. A recap of our initial recommendations, the Biden team’s actions, and our thoughts on what should come next are below: 

  • Demonstrate International Leadership Through Ambitious Regional Engagement: As mentioned above, the EO requires agencies to integrate climate change considerations into regional and country strategic plans. Also, President Biden and his cabinet have raised climate change in nearly every bilateral and multilateral engagement in the first months of the administration. For example, climate change was one of a handful of items on the agenda for the first meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with India, Australia and Japan. Whether and how these initial conversations translate into robust climate security plans for each region remains to be seen. At a minimum, these plans should be based on a nuanced analysis of regional climate security risks, and involve significant U.S. investments in the climate resilience and clean energy transitions of nations at risk.
  • Help Prevent Climate-Driven Fragility and Conflict: For years, the US government has worked to build robust, data-driven models for understanding state fragility and risks of conflict. There is now an opportunity to expand the climate security aspects of such work, including through the implementation of the new US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, released in December 2020 by the Trump Administration as required by the Global Fragility Act (GFA). While the Strategy acknowledges the role environmental issues play in fragility, conflict and peace, it does not mention climate change. As the Biden Administration takes the next steps toward executing this strategy, the role of climate change should be addressed head on. The administration should consider an addendum or expansion of the strategy that more robustly incorporates climate risks and provides clear-eyed guidance to US government development practitioners as to how to “climate proof” fragility and conflict interventions. Institutionalizing a climate lens in the process will help ensure that climate security and conflict prevention interventions are mutually reinforcing going forward.  Beyond the GFA, the Administration could also consider the development of Climate Security Conflict Prevention Framework that builds on USAID’s 2015 Climate Change and Conflict Annex to the Climate-Resilient Development Framework. 
  • Engage Allied and Partner Militaries on Climate Resilience: While much of the initial action of the Department of Defense (DoD) on climate security has focused on getting the US house in order, the next steps should expand to more robust and regular military-to-military and civil-military international engagement on climate change. We would highlight three paths via which this engagement should expand. The first pathway is through high-level, senior leader engagement. One venue for such cooperation is NATO, whose foreign ministers’ just last week approved a report on strengthening the alliance’s efforts to address climate security risks. There are a variety of other official and track II fora in which the US could work to ensure climate security is actively discussed with US military counterparts–including on the sidelines of the Earth Day event and the upcoming COP 26. 

A second path is through collaborative war-gaming and analytic efforts aimed at better understanding climate security risks. For example, the development of DoD’s new “Climate Risk Analysis” as tasked by the EO provides one such opportunity. As I argued with my colleague Kate Guy in a recent War on the Rocks article, “The more the United States can do now to integrate input from its allies and partners into its risk assessments, the more informed and efficient work together will be in the future.”

A third path is through military assistance and training programs–including through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the National Guard State Partnership Program, or through existing State Department and DoD security cooperation programs. Additionally, the Administration should consider developing new, innovative programs as well. One option would be to create a climate security training program modelled on the existing International Military Education and Training (IMET) program in order to provide relevant climate security training to civilian officials of key foreign civilian agencies.

  • Significantly Increase Strategic International Investments in Climate Resilience: In late January, Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry promised the United States would “make good” on its climate finance pledges for countries struggling with climate change, but exactly what this means or how it will be accomplished is not yet clear. The leadership of the United States is also needed in raising the required funds developing countries need to manage the climate change impacts that already exist. To this end, the Green Climate Fund, created by developed countries party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is woefully behind its targets. The initial resource mobilization launched in 2014 has raised less than 10 percent of the initial goal. To address this gap, under the leadership of the Secretary of State, the United States should partner with international financial institutions to develop innovative approaches toward increasing investments.

In addition to these measures, aimed at strengthening the adaptation and resilience capacities and capabilities of our allies and partners, the United States must also show leadership on energy innovation and transformation, and help ensure new clean energy technologies are affordable and available to all. Absent a net-zero future, the security consequences of climate change in the second half of the century are catastrophic. Therefore, US assistance to our allies and partners must encompass both sides of the climate security coin: decarbonization as well as adaptation and resilience. The Biden Administration is aggressively pursuing the former on the global stage under Special Envoy Kerry’s leadership–following the steps outlined here will ensure the administration is equally aggressive in tackling the latter.

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