WASHINGTON – Shortly after his victory in the presidential election, Joe Biden signaled that his first year in office would be, first and foremost, focused on COVID response, including ramping up vaccination efforts and working with Congress on a $1.9 trillion relief package.
But there’s another focus that is apparently going to take up considerable time in the Oval Office.
A week after his inauguration, on January 27, he signed an executive order putting the climate crisis at the center of US foreign policy and national security.
“It is the policy of my administration that climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security,” it reads.
He also announced “an early Leaders’ Climate Summit aimed at raising climate ambition and making a positive contribution to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference.” Additional steps included clarifying that it is a US priority “to press for enhanced climate ambition and integration of climate considerations” on the world stage.
When he presented his foreign policy team, Biden appointed a special envoy on climate – John Kerry – who would also get a seat at the National Security Council.
And while Secretary of State Antony Blinken is coordinating the diplomatic efforts on most fronts, Biden seems specifically engaged on climate as a core foreign policy issue.
“President Biden named Secretary Kerry as the first-ever special presidential envoy for climate to ensure climate concerns are represented at every table, including in the Situation Room,” a State Department spokesman told The Jerusalem Post this week.
The spokesman noted that the president has identified the climate crisis as one of four crises that will define his presidency.
“The United States is placing climate change at the center of US foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security,” he added. “This includes by preparing our emissions target under the Paris Agreement, developing a climate finance plan, and developing the transmittal package for the Kigali Amendment. The April 22 Leaders’ Climate Summit, which will include a leaders-level reconvening of the Major Economies Forum, will aim to raise ambition to meet the climate challenge.”
Biden has directed federal agencies “that engage in extensive international work” to present in 90 days strategies on integrating climate considerations into their international work. The secretary of defense has been tasked with presenting within 120 days an analysis of the security implications of climate change.
ACCORDING TO a variety of experts, the emphasis on climate change as part of US foreign policy makes perfect sense.
“COVID revealed the vulnerability of our health systems, our economic and trade systems, and in some cases our political systems,” Dr. James D. Ramsay, chairman of the department of security studies at the University of New Hampshire, told the Post.
“Climate security policy is critical because it would present a much more dynamic, complex and ‘wicked problem’ set of problems that would occur all at once, across most nations on earth, and which would result in catastrophes that no single nation can withstand,” he continued. “Without focused climate security policy, we cannot hope to achieve the alliances and agreements required to manage a global threat.”
He went on to say that anthropomorphic climate change results in threat vectors that impact multiple aspects of homeland security, human security and national security. “Hence, the concept of climate security should be on the same level as both domestic (that is, homeland) security and national security. Subsequently, the development of a comprehensive and inclusive climate security policy is imperative to our continued survival.”
Ramsay noted that more than any other threat vector, climate change is forcing us to reconsider how best to defend the nation.
“Policy, resources, strategies to preserve the nation-state alone are no longer sufficient,” he added. “Threats to a nation’s security stem from not only state actors but non-state actors, as well as the climate. Therefore, a broader, more inclusive concept of national security must logically include threats to human security as well.”
Debra Javeline, associate professor in the department of political science and a fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said that people feel climate change through its effects on water.
“Water scarcity with droughts and wildfires, water excess with storms, floods, and sea-level rise – these all put tremendous pressure on resources, especially potable water and food,” she said. “Results, which we are already witnessing, include mass displacement of people and conflicts within and between states. Of course, these population shifts and conflicts have implications for national security.”
Sherri Goodman is the former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security and senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She told the Post that climate change acts as a “threat multiplier,” accelerating other threats to security, particularly in fragile regions.
“In the Mideast in particular, prolonged drought, aggravated by a changing climate, is fueling food and water insecurity and driving climate migration across borders,” she said.
How does climate change affect US homeland security?
“Climate change affects US homeland security by dramatically increasing natural disaster damage from hurricanes, wildfires, floods, extreme weather, sea-level rise, drought and permafrost collapse. Weakened infrastructure also leads to other threats, such as cyber and terrorist attacks. The costs of climate-fueled natural disasters cost Americans billions of dollars for rescue, recovery and repair. The US needs to become a climate-resilient nation.”
Erin Sikorsky, deputy director at the Center for Climate and Security, told the Post that climate change is already shaping the national security landscape worldwide, and these effects will intensify in coming years.
“For example, climate stress from warming temperatures and changing weather patterns contributes to political instability, geopolitical tensions, and higher risks of conflict abroad, while extreme weather and sea-level rise repeatedly threaten US military bases and infrastructure here at home,” she said.
Should we expect many US bases to relocate? How do you see the future from that perspective?
“Climate change effects threaten US bases and infrastructure in multiple ways. For example, climate change causes ocean temperatures rise – which, in turn, increases the intensity [of, and the] rainfall and flooding produced by, hurricanes. Hurricanes have caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage to US military bases on the Gulf coast. This isn’t just a coastal problem though. In the Midwest, Offutt Air Force Base, home to US Strategic Command, has flooded in recent years, while wildfires have threatened military installations in California.
“Congress has pushed the Department of Defense to better evaluate and prepare for these threats. In legislation passed in 2017, Congress required the Pentagon to identify the 10 installations most vulnerable to climate change, and just this year passed legislation that requires DOD to update its Climate Change Adaptation Road Map.
“Given Secretary of Defense Austin’s strong support for President Biden’s EO [executive order], it’s likely that the Pentagon will further focus on the question of resilience and adaptation at its bases, including examining the possibility of relocating particularly vulnerable sites.”
She went on to say that the good news is that foresight tools and climate modeling allow for fairly accurate longer-term projections of the physical effects of climate change.
“If national security planners integrate these projections into their planning, they can take steps to manage climate security risks by building resilience for the threats to come,” Sikorsky noted. “Of course, adaptation only gets you so far. Our risk analysis shows that the security threats posed by climate change are catastrophic in the second half of the century, if carbon emissions are not cut quickly. Mitigation and adaptation are two sides of the same climate security coin – both are needed in the long term.”