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The Leaders Summit on Climate is a Historic Moment in Global Security

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U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry meets with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, March 9, 2021

By Kate Guy

Starting today, the Biden Administration is bringing together global leaders and Heads of State to catalyze ambition in the first ever Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by the U.S. Government. But this Summit is also historic in another way: the inclusion of a high-level conversation on the “global security challenges posed by climate change” at the center of its agenda. American defense and security leaders have never before attended a high-level summit on climate change, let alone chaired one. 

Now, climate security issues will take a featured role in a dedicated session hosted by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, with participation from the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and the Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Joining them will be senior security officials from six countries (the United Kingdom, Japan, Kenya, The Philippines, Iraq, and Spain), as well as the Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. This high-level participation represents a major advancement in the Center for Climate and Security’s decade-long effort to bring climate change to the big kid’s table of national and international security, as well as to better integrate security considerations into global climate policy.

The virtual summit is the result of campaign commitments by President Biden to elevate climate change as a core foreign and security policy issue early in his Presidency, and to rally the world to address the challenges of climate change. Key to those challenges are the global and national security implications of a changing climate. The Biden Administration’s Interim National Security Strategy features climate change as a key threat, and has committed to develop new assessments, intelligence reports, risk analyses, and strategies to confront climate security impacts worldwide.

Though discussion time will be limited, this Summit represents an important moment to bring together global security leaders in a dedicated conversation on the risks, and opportunities, presented by accelerating climate change. We know that the security consequences of our current warming trajectory are already mounting, while the still world possesses too few venues or tools with which to approach these risks. Here are three key themes to watch for in the discussion.

  1. Regional perspectives on growing threats:

    Climate change is already a destabilizing factor in security environments across the world, and leaders will likely highlight the early signs of climate insecurities in their own neighborhoods. In our recent research, the Center for Climate Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) have focused on the growing climate risks to the Indo-Asia Pacific (including South Asia, South-East Asia, and Japan, specifically). Expect this region to feature prominently in discussions given its high degree of climate security risk, from sea-level rise threatening populous port cities, to water and resource stress fraying already tense great power relationships. Speakers may also highlight other growing climate security hotspots, like the Arctic, the Sahel, and the Northern Triangle region of Latin America.

    For in-depth analyses of how climate change is impacting specific regional security dynamics, read the IMCCS World Climate and Security Report 2020 and Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change. Expect leaders to highlight these worsening trends, and to look ahead to how they could overwhelm security services in the near future.
  2. Climate change compounding other strategic risks:

    We’ve long known that the effects of climate change act as a threat multiplier, intensifying existing security threats on the ground. But increasingly, climate trends are also compounding other risks to create novel, escalating security  situations. From the COVID-19 pandemic and other infectious diseases, to growing nuclear tensions, to the weaponization of water resources, climate change must be understood in relation to the other risks that will define the future of global security. Ecological security risks, themselves impacted by climate change, are also growing at a record pace while undermining the safety and stability of communities.

    In our recent Climate Security Risk Perception Survey, we asked experts to rank the climate security phenomena that they perceive to pose the biggest risks across the next twenty years. Respondents specifically noted the compound relationships between these risks, detailing issues of water, food, and ecosystem security threats to pose the greatest relational risks. Watch for speakers to highlight these complex relationships between climate change and other threats, and the compounding impact that they are having across society.
  3. New security sector cooperation and commitments:

    Alongside these intensifying risks, the global community is also witnessing the dawn of a new era of climate security cooperation. In order to mitigate and build rapid resilience to climate impacts, countries are increasingly adopting ideas from the ‘Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent’ framework, which outlines the need for new assessment on, elevation of, and coordination around these threats. As recent dialogues in the UN Security Council have shown, new spaces for dialogue on climate security are sorely needed. This dedicated Summit session represents continued progress in this area, as will new, forward-looking commitments brought by participating security leaders.

    There is much more to be done, however, and experts from the Center for Climate and Security have outlined  proposals and climate security plans for the United States, NATO, Europe, Canada, Japan, and Brazil. Specifically, countries need better partnerships for risk-mapping and early warning capabilities, threat deescalation, and region-specific coordination on resilience-building efforts. The Biden Administration can lead the way in this regard by fully prioritizing climate change in its national security policy and elevating the issue to receive the same attention, investment, and staffing as other key threats. Watch for leaders to make specific pledges to address these policy areas, and hopefully, to meet regularly to discuss their progress.

A dedicated discussion on climate security at a summit of world leaders is a historic step forward towards addressing these growing threats. This dialogue’s high-level presence on the agenda, alongside other critical discussions on raising ambition, financial investments, and nature-based solutions, should be a sign to security actors around the world how central these topics must be. Discussion of mounting climate risks, should also serve as a stark reminder of how critical the mission of curtailing human-caused climate change remains, for security and political leaders alike.

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