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Climatizing Security: Sherri Goodman on Cimpatico

Thunderstorms over the South China Sea – ISS 48

By Elsa Barron

In a conversation with Cimpatico Studios host, Doug Parsons, Hon. Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist at the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and Chair of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), highlighted the importance of “climatizing security” in order to identify and respond to heightening climate risks and lead by example in climate change mitigation (e.g. adopting clean energy infrastructure). The conversation followed three major threads: the climate threat multiplier and its effect on the military, the role of international institutions in managing climate security and advancing clean energy, and the implications of U.S. President Biden’s recent executive order on the future of climate security. 

The term “threat multiplier,” coined by Goodman in 2007, signals the reality that climate change often aggravates existing threats that can destabilize society and lead to a heightened risk of conflict. Goodman highlighted multiple ways that climate-induced changes to water distribution act as a threat multiplier with direct effects on human communities. Storms, flooding, and sea-level rise reduce crop stability, damage infrastructure, and induce migration. In contrast to this over-abundance of water, water shortages or drought can cause food and water insecurity that damage community health and trigger migration. Finally, in the rapidly warming Arctic, water also plays an important role. Permafrost melt disrupts the lives of indigenous communities and creates access to sea routes and resources that can become avenues of power competition and potential sources of conflict. 

Climate impacts also have direct effects on the military, of which Goodman highlights three. First, climate change impacts infrastructure and military installations. Sea-level rise threatens bases in the east, wildfires produce threats in the west, permafrost melt causes damages in the north, and flooding causes similar harm in the midwest. Each of these climate-related events has the potential to damage military bases and infrastructure. Second, climate change impacts military operations as troops are increasingly deployed to respond to natural disasters. Third, the health and readiness of troops are at risk when heat and humidity levels become too intense. With each of these impacts in mind, Goodman asserts that the climate threat multiplier can and should receive consideration in all forms of national security planning. 

In addition to national governments and militaries, international institutions have an important role to play in the process of “climatizing security.” Goodman advocates for Climate Security Watch Centers to monitor risks and provide solutions before climate-induced instability leads to conflict. These Centers could be critical to creating meaningful development strategies coupled with financial tools and incentives that help countries build climate resilience. Goodman adds that international cooperation and competition also have important roles to play in the climate conversation. For example, as the Northern seas open up, Russia and China both imagine an Arctic economy. While there has been a long history of peaceful cooperation in the Arctic, especially given the dangers of operating in the icy north, this cooperation is fragile and must be maintained. International institutions have an important role to play in addressing climate risks and ensuring peace. 

Finally, Goodman comments on the recent Biden Administration’s executive order, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” Goodman begins by applauding the executive order for its ambition and climate-forward agenda. She asserts that one critical piece of this agenda is the push to move forward with climate resilience planning in the Department of Defense (DoD). As the nation’s second-largest landholder with diverse infrastructure, the DoD has the opportunity to lead by example. One step directly included in the executive order is to electrify the department’s vehicle fleet, setting us on the road to a carbon-neutral military. Another key inclusion is the creation of a National Intelligence Estimate on climate change which includes all intelligence agencies. Goodman asserts this will help build continued “traction and relevance” for climate security considerations. When asked about the potential shortcomings of the order, Goodman admits that even the most robust plan cannot be executed without the appropriate funding. In order to actualize the provisions of the executive order, there must be significant financial allocations in next year’s budget. However, when the funding and the planning come together, it will allow the climate engine to take off, full steam (or battery) ahead. Pun intended.

Elsa Barron is an intern with Sherri Goodman at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks

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