Foreign Relations & International Law

Climate Security Next Steps for the U.S. Government

John Conger, Erin Sikorsky
Friday, May 6, 2022, 8:01 AM

In the 21st century, addressing national security risks to Americans means tackling climate security. Here are a few key recommendations for how the Biden administration should do just that.

President Biden arriving at the COP26 World Leaders Summit in Glasgow. (COP26;

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

In late 2018 and early 2019, climate change-related flooding devastated three critical United States military bases: Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune on the North Carolina coast, Tyndall Air Force Base on the Gulf Coast and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home to U.S. Strategic Command. Overall, in 2019 the United States experienced 14 climate-related disasters that cost more than $1 billion, and Arctic temperatures hit a record high. It was against this backdrop that the Climate Security Advisory Group, an organization of military and security practitioners that we organize, released a Climate Security Plan for America—which called on the U.S. president to recognize climate change as a vital national security threat, and issue a national strategy to fulfill a “responsibility to prepare for and prevent” that threat.

Fast forward three years to 2022. There’s a new president in the White House and a new urgency to tackle climate security risks. Since taking office, the Biden administration has made significant strides toward meeting the charge of the Climate Security Plan for America, particularly the plan’s first pillar: demonstrating leadership. President Biden immediately rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and has developed high-level policies and analysis on incorporating climate change policy into defense, diplomacy and intelligence work. It has established positions within the security apparatus that are focused on these risks and has pursued action on climate aggressively in security and international forums.

Yet the work is just beginning. A quick tour of the globe underscores the fact that climate security risks are intensifying: fires in the western U.S.  resulted in 170,000 person hours of firefighting by the U.S. National Guard in 2021 (up from 14,000 just five years earlier); to street protests over heat-driven water and energy shortages in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon; to increased commercial and military activity in the Arctic thanks to more open waterways given unprecedented Arctic temperatures. In its latest assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that climate change-driven hazards are already “contributing to humanitarian crises … [and] increasingly driving displacement in all regions … [exposing] millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security.”

In March, the Climate Security Advisory Group released a new report—“Challenge Acceptedwhich evaluates the U.S. government’s progress since the 2019 Climate Security Plan for America and makes new recommendations to take the work further. An unprecedented number of security and foreign policy leaders endorsed the new report, including retired generals and admirals, ambassadors, and other senior defense, diplomatic and intelligence leaders. They agreed that “we are at the end of the beginning of the climate security challenge.”

Evaluating Climate Security Action

The Biden administration deserves kudos for showing leadership on climate security since day one. Nearly every speech and high-level engagement by senior foreign policy and defense officials in this administration mentions climate change.

The White House and Congress also get credit for progress toward the second pillar of the 2019 report: assessing climate risks. For example, Congress strengthened U.S. climate security risk assessment capability in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 when it established the Climate Security Advisory Council to strengthen collaboration between the U.S. government’s scientific agencies and the intelligence community on climate security risks. Another small step forward occurred in 2021 when the CIA launched a new analytic center focused on technology and global problems such as pandemics and climate change.

In terms of the remaining pillars—supporting U.S. allies and partners in advancing climate security and preparing for and preventing climate impacts—the administration has set the right tone and launched some new tools, but implementation needs far more work. This is somewhat understandable given the challenges of time and resources within a new administration.

This excuse does not, however, explain all of the shortfalls.

Some of the roadblocks have come from Capitol Hill. For example, the administration’s commitment to deploy funds to fragile nations to shore up their resilience to climate change is admirable, but Congress did not follow through in the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022. For its part, the administration has focused foreign policy heavily on climate mitigation, or cutting emissions, without giving as much attention to adaptation priorities. More can be done to integrate climate security considerations into the regional and country-specific strategies of the departments of State and Defense. For example, the Defense Department has yet to move on congressional direction from 2020 to develop resilience plans at each of its installations—plans that could have been generating proposed projects by now.

Next Steps

Where should the U.S. government go from here? How can it turn its words into actions on climate security—and ensure those actions are sustainable?

The new report from the Climate Security Advisory Group provides 21 new recommendations to do just that, in the same four pillars as the original 2019 report: Demonstrating Leadership, Assessing Climate Risks,Supporting Allies and Partners, and Preparing for and Preventing Climate Impacts.

Within “Demonstrating Leadership,” the report urges the government to fully resource its ambitious plans. To continue to demonstrate leadership, it needs to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak. President Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget request takes a good step in this direction by requesting significant funding for climate security action, including $3.1 billion for the Defense Department’s climate priorities. This includes $2 billion for resilience and adaptation, and other investments increasing operational platform efficiency, as well as investments in operational energy. The request also includes $3.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security’s climate resilience programs. For their part, the State Department and USAID requested $11 billion for international climate finance—including a $1.6 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund, a fund established at the U.N. to assist developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. As the “Challenge Accepted” report argues, fully funding U.S. climate finance pledges is in the security interest of the United States because it can help promote stability and minimize risks of conflict in countries facing the brunt of climate change effects.

Under “Assessing Climate Risks,” the report urges the administration to ensure political leaders have the information they need to take decisive, effective action to address climate security risks. Advanced climate modeling can project the implications of a range of greenhouse gas emission levels on risks such as sea level rise, rainfall variability, wildfires, effects on biodiversity, marine and terrestrial ecosystems and functions, and disease distribution. In order to leverage these models for national security insights, U.S. security experts must have easy access to relevant climate change forecasts and the climate literacy skills to use them. Regional and country experts need to understand how climate change forecasts will affect national and international dynamics. Infrastructure planners should have both access to projections and the means and technical climate knowledge and literacy needed to develop measures to adapt. At the same time, U.S. scientific agencies need to learn more about the requirements of their customers across the government so that they can provide more actionable data and information. Agencies should consider filling leadership positions with people holding a wide range of climate-relevant expertise, including extensive climate science knowledge.

How would a workforce with the right skills and tools put them to use in assessing climate security risks? One example is thinking through how the intelligence community should follow up on its 2021 National Intelligence Estimate on climate change, which identified 11 countries and three regional arcs of concern for climate vulnerability over the next 20 years. Going forward, a climate-strong intelligence community workforce should regularly assess and monitor these regions, evaluate whether additional ones should be added to the list and develop clear indicators to gauge when climate vulnerabilities transform into climate security hotspots. Moreover, the intelligence community should assess how climate vulnerabilities may compound or intersect with other risks such as nuclear proliferation.

One way to speed up this work is by ensuring the interagency effort is fully leveraging the coordinating bodies it has at its disposal to build cross-sectoral climate security collaboration between the U.S. scientific agencies and the national security community. These include the National Academies Climate Security Roundtable, the Climate Security Advisory Council and the reinstated Climate Change and National Security Working Group. The administration should also explore opportunities to leverage the U.S. Global Change Research Program to both inform climate security assessments of risks abroad and lay the groundwork for a national resilience plan that sets the stage for climate security at home.

The actions outlined in the third pillar, “Supporting Allies and Partners,” complement the Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy, which states that allies and partners are “an enduring strength for the United States, and are critical to achieving our objectives.” If the U.S. hopes to rely on its allies and partners to help manage future threats, it must ensure those countries are well positioned to withstand coming climate hazards. To that end, the departments of Defense and State should fully integrate the security impacts of climate change in security assistance and cooperation programs, including training and equipping, to strengthen the capacity of allied and partner militaries to identify and respond to the security impacts of climate change, including providing support to civil authorities in disaster risk and response activities.

Further, the report recommends that Congress fulfill the administration’s climate finance commitments. By ensuring adaptation and stability in fragile nations where climate stress is severe, the U.S. can help protect its economy and the global supply chain. Another pathway through which this goal can be met is the integration of climate considerations into the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, which was released under the Trump administration in response to congressional requirements. Earlier this month, the Biden administration took a step in this direction through the formulation of a “prologue” to this strategy, which identified five regions and countries of priority for this strategy—Haiti, Libya, Coastal West Africa, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea—and committed the U.S. to “consider and address the risks posed by the impacts of climate change and other environmental security risks and test new ways of building climate resilience and deepen our understanding of the connections between fragility, peacebuilding and the environment.”

Under the final pillar, “Preparing for and Preventing Climate Impacts,” the report recommends more investments in resilience and a faster path toward net-zero emissions. To prepare for near-term climate security risks, the U.S. government must make more investments in resilient security infrastructure—the Defense Department alone has a trillion dollars worth of real property, so it will take a lot to climate-proof it. The report also proposes the design of a comprehensive National Adaptation Plan, coordinated across all levels of government and across the government-private sector divide. Given the increasing number of billion-dollar disasters that the U.S. has faced in recent years, it needs concrete, shared resilience goals and a framework for prioritizing risk reduction in federal, state and local investments.

At the same time, this pillar recognizes that the U.S. also must prevent the most catastrophic security outcomes from climate change in the second half of the century by moving as fast as possible to reduce emissions. Late last year, President Biden set aggressive emissions reduction targets for the federal government in Executive Order 14057, “Catalyzing Clean Energy Jobs and Industries Through Federal Sustainability.” The overarching goal of the executive order is to catalyze broader economy-wide action through the U.S. government’s buying power. In particular, that means driving increased demand for carbon pollution-free electricity and for electric vehicles. As the largest electricity user in the federal government, and as the federal agency with the largest nontactical vehicle fleet other than the U.S. Postal Service, the Defense Department must lead this catalytic strategy.

At its core—the national security apparatus in the U.S. was created to keep America and Americans safe. Doing so in the 21st century means tackling climate security risks—as multiple secretaries of defense, including James Mattis and Lloyd Austin, have recognized. This new report, “Challenge Accepted,” is a road map for policymakers to do just that. Let’s hope they follow it.

John Conger is senior advisor to the Council on Strategic Risks, director emeritus of the Center for Climate and Security and a senior U.S. Advisor to the International Military Council on Climate and Security. Formerly, Mr. Conger served in senior positions at the Department of Defense, including Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense (Energy, Installations and Environment).
Erin Sikorsky is the director of the Center for Climate and Security, a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, D.C. She previously led climate and environment analysis across the U.S. intelligence community, serving as deputy director of the Strategic Futures Group on the National Intelligence Council.

Subscribe to Lawfare