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Climate and Ecological Security in the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment

By Erin Sikorsky and Michael Zarfos

On March 8, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and other top U.S. intelligence agency leaders came before the Senate Intelligence Committee to present their Annual Threat Assessment (ATA)—a rundown of the top threats facing the United States in the coming year. As in previous iterations, climate and ecological security issues featured in the briefing and submitted testimony from the DNI, with the unclassified version of the testimony’s Foreword stating, “ The accelerating effects of climate change are placing more of the world’s population, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, under threat from extreme weather, food insecurity, and humanitarian disasters, fueling migration flows and increasing the risks of future pandemics as pathogens exploit the changing environment.”

Ecological Security

In the question and answer portion of the hearing, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) highlighted (1:29:30) the Council on Strategic Risks 2020 report, “The Security Threat that Binds Us,” which he commended for its recommendation of elevating ecological security in U.S. national security policymaking. He noted in particular its assessment of China’s illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.  DNI Avril Haines acknowledged seeing the report, her concern regarding IUU fishing, and explained that the intelligence community was working to follow some of its recommendations, including a greater integration of the federal scientific community with the Intelligence Community (IC).

The ATA identified IUU fishing as a significant driver of stock depletion across the globe. It also highlighted the converging risks that combine with overexploitation to cause species declines. Human pollution (e.g. agricultural and sewage nutrient runoff) and climate change (e.g. warmer, more acidic water) increase the vulnerability of marine species to decline as important ecosystems (e.g. seagrass and coral reefs) are undermined. 

Warming waters are expected to drive important species into new regions of the ocean, while also removing some species from countries’ territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The presence of heavily subsidized IUU fleets—such as those fielded by China—increases competition for these diminishing and shifting fish stocks. Poorer countries that rely on the sea are ill-equipped to compete with these fleets, leading to reduced economic and food security that may contribute to internal unrest. 

More broadly, the ATA outlines how ecological degradation in general (e.g. deforestation, pollution, wildlife trafficking) can combine with climate change to threaten human and national security. As each of these anthropogenic stressors progresses, natural resources (e.g. food, soil, timber, and water) will in some regions decline or shift in their geographic availability. These outcomes, combined with a changing climate, will impact human health through malnutrition and the spread of unfamiliar diseases. Natural disasters will add immediate stress to punctuate these gradual processes. Where these combined stressors do not immediately contribute to conflict, they will displace populations and exacerbate inequality, which in turn may destabilize societies. 

Climate Finance

An important new angle of climate security in this year’s ATA was its focus on potential geopolitical challenges related to climate finance. The ATA noted, “Tensions also are rising between countries over climate financing.  High-and middle-income countries still have not met their 2015 Paris Agreement pledges to provide $100 billion per year to low-income countries by 2020, and low-income countries want more assistance with adapting to climate effects.”

The assessment goes on to raise last year’s climate-driven floods in Pakistan and the country’s subsequent calls for loss and damage funding as an example. Certainly, the dynamics at COP27 around the creation of a loss and damage fund, including the eventual agreement by developing countries that China would not benefit from such a fund, reflect the changing global dynamics of climate finance. This highlight in the ATA underscores a point the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) made in a briefer earlier this year about the security links to climate finance issues, and the importance of the United States understanding these connections as it approaches allies and partners on climate issues. 

Overall, it is heartening to see both the IC exploring a wide range of climate and ecological security issues in the ATA, and members of Congress expressing increased interest in these critical issues.

Changing Tone, Shifting Priorities and Continuing Progress: Lessons from a House Armed Services Committee Hearing under the New Republican Majority

by John Conger

On February 28, 2023, the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held its first hearing of the new Congress, with new Chairman Mike Waltz (R-FL) presiding, a handful of new Members joining the Subcommittee, and a newly minted Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment, Brendan Owens, joining his service counterparts to discuss the installations portfolio.  While the hearing was held in advance of the submission of the President’s Budget Request, there was still much to learn both from new voices and from old voices in new roles.  

Several months ago, after the election, I shared some thoughts on what might be expected from the Republican House, particularly in the context of past Congresses where Republicans held the majority and made progress on climate security.  Tuesday’s discussion echoed some of the same themes I highlighted, including an emphasis on mission assurance and installation resilience, concerns about Russia and China, and a particular concern about critical minerals.

In his opening statement, Chairman Waltz invoked concerns about China, both in the context of threats in the Pacific and the context of Beijing’s dominance of critical minerals supply chains.  He noted that the leverage this gives China as the United States pursues vehicle electrification, renewable energy and large-scale battery storage.  He also said he found it “concerning” that the DoD was focused on climate change as a national security priority because of this leverage – and particularly noted he wanted to dig into the Army’s plans to electrify its tanks.

Later, the Chairman posed it as a choice.  In perhaps his most illustrative statement, he said, “We’re charging headlong into our climate plans… but we cannot trade risk to climate for risk to force.”  In other words, under his chairmanship the Department is going to get some ability to pursue its climate efforts, but it needs to ensure none of those efforts sacrifice warfighting capability in the name of climate.  This is an unnecessary strawman – the Department is not proposing to limit readiness or warfighting capability to prepare for a climate changed world.  Secretary Austin has made this clear, and the climate plans published by the Army, Navy and Air Force all emphasize that the very reason the climate plans exist is to protect their ability to conduct their missions. 

Even with the concerns Rep. Waltz shared, he promoted resilience, the importance of incorporating it into installation master plans, and concerns about the leverage that Russian energy supplies give it over our installations in Europe.  The bottom line was that military capability, in his mind, is paramount, and any environmental efforts would only be acceptable if they supported the primary goal.  

Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), the Ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee and former Chairman, embraced Mr. Waltz’s opening comments, highlighting the vulnerability to climate hazards of installations like Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.  He noted that there was the potential for “divisiveness” on energy, but as long as Congress focused on cost savings, resilience, microgrids, and even increased use of small modular reactors, that there would be continued bipartisan progress.

Mr. Owens and his counterparts included a significant focus on resilience to climate threats – including the role clean energy can play in building resilience – in their opening comments.  It is clear that a focus on resilience to climate risks continues to offer opportunities for bipartisan progress.  

During questioning, some key topics that were raised included:

  • The reliance on – and prospects for independence from – Russian energy at DoD’s European bases (Rep. Waltz);
  • The dependence on Chinese-manufactured solar panels and batteries to achieve energy goals (Rep. Waltz) – with each of the respondents emphasizing the importance of bringing production of these materials and finished products to the United States;
  • Exploring the use of small modular nuclear reactors for power generation (Rep. Wilson, R-SC);
  • Lessons learned from achieving net-zero energy status at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany (Rep. Sherrill, D-NJ); 
  • The importance of avoiding Chinese-produced batteries as we shift to EVs (Rep Scott); 
  • Additional emphasis on the need to ensure no Chinese materials are included in military equipment (Rep. Gimenez, R-FL); and
  • Climate resilience plans (Rep. Escobar, D-TX).

In the end, what was learned?

  • Concern about reliance on both Chinese minerals and Russian energy echoed through the hearing, and both will have reverberations throughout the Department’s climate efforts.  As it pursues its climate plans, DoD will make more progress where it directly addresses the concerns and priorities of the committee.  
  • The new Chairman will need reassurance that the Department’s climate plans will augment, rather than compete with, military capability.
  • Installation resilience appears to be a key priority that intersects with climate security agendas and committee concerns, and both parties will continue to support efforts to protect facilities, the energy grid, transportation routes and other critical infrastructure from climate impacts.

Climate & Food Security on Stage at the Munich Security Conference

By Erin Sikorsky, Patricia Parera, and Brigitte Hugh

Almost a year after the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine began, it was no surprise that the 2023 Munich Security Conference focused on the importance and implications of the ongoing conflict. This focus included a look at the second-order effects of the conflict, such as global food insecurity and the energy transition – a recognition that tackling such transnational challenges are integral to what the conference report identified as a need for “A re-envisioned liberal, rules-based international order…to strengthen democratic resilience in an era of fierce systemic competition with autocratic regimes.”

Underscoring the importance of these issues, early in the conference NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmerman, and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell met to discuss the intersection of climate change and security. As Kerry said, “While we must confront the security risks the world faces head on, we must also do so with an eye to the climate crisis, which is making these dangers worse.” 

The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and the International Military Council for Climate and Security (IMCCS) helped drive the conversation forward on these topics at the conference through two high-level side-events: “Cleaner and Meaner: The Military Energy Security Transition by Design” and “Feeding Climate Resilience: Mapping the Security Benefits of Agriculture and Climate Adaptation.” The events included government officials, NGO and private foundation representatives, defense sector leaders and the media.

Implementing NATO’s Climate Security Action Plan

NATO and IMCCS co-hosted the Cleaner and Meaner side-event, which focused on the challenges and opportunities facing NATO members as they consider the security risks of climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuel dependence. During the event, the NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel, said that the alliance needs “to mainstream climate change and energy transition considerations into the entire NATO enterprise, including training, exercising, force planning, and the development and procurement of military capabilities.”

The conversation culminated in three key takeaways: first, public-private partnerships are critical for decarbonizing defense. As one participant put it, militaries must work with the private sector to more quickly turn clean energy technologies into capabilities. Second, competing timelines are a key challenge for militaries – the need to resupply today in the face of the Ukraine conflict with the longer timeline needed to integrate new clean energy technologies. Further complicating matters is the fact that equipment procured today may not be as useful in a warming world, and participants noted militaries will need to reexamine their assumptions and strategic planning priorities to manage such change. A third takeaway was the importance of focusing on the operational benefits of clean energy for the military. Demonstrating that investments in clean energy will help militaries achieve their core duties will help speed the transition. 

The Food and Climate Security Nexus

The Feeding Climate Resilience side-event hosted by CCS explored the intersection of food insecurity, climate change, and conflict. As one participant put it, investing in stable ground through climate and agricultural adaptation ensures that the soil is less fertile for insurgencies. The conversation emphasized three key needs: (1) the adoption of a more holistic and systems approach to the issues of climate change, food insecurity, and instability; (2) an increase in technology innovation in agriculture; and (3) more inclusive policy and decision making, from the subnational to international level. Participants discussed the need to develop, collect and disseminate concrete examples of successful and sustainable climate and food security-related initiatives which reduce conflict and build peace.   

Participants underscored the security benefits of increased support for sustainable development policies and technological innovations that promote climate-smart agriculture and investments in science and technology that target the needs of small farmers–especially women. The conversation also identified the importance of scaling up climate finance and developing more responsive and inclusive planning and policy systems for finance, water management, and markets. Perhaps the most crucial lesson in addressing the current food security challenge is the importance of partnerships, particularly at the local and subnational level and between the private sector, government and civil society, among others. South-South cooperation and Triangular cooperation, or that between developed and developing countries, is also critical. The most promising multilateral partnerships are in areas like science and technology, because they can leverage the immense capabilities and assets of the private sector in cooperation with government and civil society. 

The group concluded that tackling these issues requires a new Green Revolution. Research and innovation in agriculture are at the core of long-term food security and diminish the possibility of conflict, instability, and hunger, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Additionally, the conversation on food and climate must include water advocates as water is a key socio-economic driver for sustainable growth, livelihood, justice, food security, and labor. Without equitable and secure access to water for all, there can be no sustainable development or climate security. 

Looking Ahead

CCS and IMCCS look forward to acting on the priorities outlined by participants in both sessions through targeted research, policy development and community building to increase awareness and investment in the military energy transition, agricultural adaptation, food security, and climate resilience.

Featured image sourced from: MSC / David Hecker, Munich Security Conference.

CCS and IMCCS to Host Events on Food Security and the Clean Energy Transition at the Munich Security Conference

The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) in partnership with NATO look forward to hosting innovative conversations on key climate security issues, including food security and the clean energy transition, at the Munich Security Conference set to take place February 17-19, 2023. 

Food Security

Climate change is a strategically significant security risk that will affect our most basic resources, including food, with potentially dire security ramifications. National and international security communities, including militaries and intelligence agencies, understand these risks and are taking action to anticipate them. However, progress in mitigating these risks will require deeper collaboration among the climate change, agriculture and food security, and national security communities through targeted research, policy development, and community building. 

In order to address these challenges, CCS will host an interactive roundtable under the title “Feeding Climate Resilience: Mapping the Security Benefits of Agriculture and Climate Adaptation” with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, featuring a high-level discussion aimed at identifying further areas of cooperation among these sectors and exploring possible areas for policy action.

The Clean Energy Transition

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent global energy crisis, coupled with the last few years of unprecedented extreme heat, droughts, and floods, have revealed a new, more complex security reality for NATO countries. Navigating this reality requires militaries to systematically recognize the opportunities and challenges that exist within the nexus between climate change and security, and the global clean energy transition. 

The deterioration in Euro-Atlantic security will lead to increases in Alliance military procurement as well as the intensity of training, exercising, and patrolling. Such investment decisions can maintain and enhance operational effectiveness and collective defense requirements by taking advantage of the innovative solutions offered by the green energy transition that are designed for future operating environments while contributing to individual countries’ UNFCCC Paris Agreement commitments. However, it is also important to identify and mitigate new dependencies created by a switch from Russian fossil fuels to a critical minerals supply chain currently dominated by China and to think holistically about interoperability and other factors of relevance to the Alliance.

A roundtable discussion titled “Cleaner and Meaner: The Military Energy Transition by Design” and hosted by IMCCS and NATO will identify key opportunities to speed NATO militaries’ transition to clean energy, as well as challenges/obstacles that require cooperation and strategic planning across the Alliance. The conversation will seek to identify next steps for NATO countries, including through technological innovation and partnerships with the private sector, and builds on conversations about the implementation of climate security planning hosted by IMCCS and NATO at the 2022 conference.


Follow us here and on social media for more coming out of this year’s conversations at MSC.

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