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Implementing the Biden Administration’s Climate Executive Order – The Defense Climate Risk Analysis

President Biden at the Leaders Summit on Climate – 22 April 2021

By Erin Sikorsky

Today marks an important milestone in the execution of the Biden Administration’s climate security strategy. In accordance with the Executive Orders on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, the White House, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence have just released four key reports: The Defense Climate Risk Analysis; an unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on the Security Implications of Climate Change; Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration; and a Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Addressing Climate Change

Together, these reports paint a sobering picture of the security risks posed by climate change, exploring not only the direct threats posed by climate hazards to human security, critical infrastructure, and military readiness, but also the secondary threats that emerge when climate effects intersect with other factors such as poor governance, existing state fragility, or violent extremism.  

On November 17, 2021, the Center for Climate and Security will hold a virtual seminar discussing these reports and where the Biden Administration goes next. RSVP for this session, Analysis to Action: Advancing Climate Security in the Biden Administration here.

We will also will publish a series of posts examining each report in depth over the next week. Today, we begin with a look at the Defense Climate Risk Analysis.

Defense Climate Risk Analysis – Key Takeaways

If the Defense Department’s Climate Adaptation Plan was the Pentagon’s report on how to continue to conduct its missions despite climate change, the Defense Climate Risk Analysis (DCRA) is aimed at understanding how those missions will be shaped by climate hazards in years to come. The DCRA provides two critical resources for defense planners. First, it clearly makes the case for the integrated nature of the climate security threat, outlining how climate hazards will intersect with existing threats. Presumably, it does this in even more detail in the regional sections that are redacted from the public version of the report. Second, it provides a road map of where and how to mainstream climate risk analysis across the defense enterprise going forward.

Given that some still argue that addressing climate change will actually hamper or displace the Defense Department’s efforts to compete with China, it’s particularly useful that the DCRA acknowledges that the behavior of US competitors and adversaries will be altered by climate change, noting that in the Indo-Pacific, “China may try to take advantage of climate change impacts to gain influence,” as noted by the Center for Climate and Security back in 2015. The report also indicates that, “U.S. allies, partners and competitors are assessing the implications of climate change on their strategic objectives.” The implication is clear — if the United States does not do the same, it will be left behind and defense planners caught flat footed. 

The final two sections of the report are perhaps the most important. They go beyond the risk assessment tasked in the Executive Order by also identifying what to do about the risk — in other words, they constitute a concrete plan of action. The chapters detail steps the Department should take to integrate the security implications of climate change into key strategy documents, programs, and international partner engagements. Of note, it highlights the importance of leveraging existing tools and programs to support allies and partners, such as the Defense Climate Assessment Tool, the Pacific Environmental Security Partnership, and the US Army Corps of Engineers technical assistance programs. Given the high levels of climate security risk outlined earlier in the report, it’s clear that without such support, many allies and partners will be unable to step up when we need them on other issues. 

Looking ahead, the question now is how quickly will the Department take action on these recommendations? A key challenge across the national security enterprise is the need for a scientifically literate, climate educated workforce to implement the Biden Administration’s climate ambitions. The Risk Analysis gives a nod to the need for integrating climate considerations into DoD educational curricula, and the Defense Department’s Climate Adaptation Plan made clear it considers ‘climate strong’ personnel a critical component of the DoD resilience strategy. Fortunately, the DCRA provides a step by step guide to implementation, including detailed recommendations on where exactly climate risk can be incorporated into modeling, simulation and wargaming. We’ll know in January exactly how much progress has been made–the Executive Order on tackling the climate crisis requires annual progress reports, and the first is due in January 2022.

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