Foreign Relations & International Law

What You Need to Know About the New Climate Security Reports

Mark Nevitt
Tuesday, October 26, 2021, 3:47 PM

The reports offer a clear-eyed analysis of the climate threats facing the nation and world.

Aerial view of the Arctic Polar ice rim showing the impact of climate change. (Photo by United Nations Photo)

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Last week, the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Homeland Security and National Security Council released four distinct reports on the effects of climate change on national security. These reports were issued pursuant to requirements established in two executive orders issued by President Biden earlier this year: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration. These four reports build off the Pentagon’s recent Climate Adaptation Plan and the Department of Homeland Security’s Climate Action Plan, issued in September and October, respectively. Read in conjunction with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, the four reports present a full, albeit bleak, picture of a climate-transformed world.

These reports—particularly the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—offer a clear-eyed analysis of the climate threats facing the nation and world. The NIE is produced by the National Intelligence Council, the most senior intelligence analysts with deep expertise on future threats facing the U.S. and the rest of the world. It should be mandatory reading for all security professionals. It is also a first-of-its-kind document, summarizing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community in a candid, forthright manner.

Several broad climatic themes emerge from these reports. I’ve highlighted the following toplines below, with a particular focus on the NIE’s blunt analysis of the scope and scale of the climate crisis.

The World Is Far Off Track to Meet the Paris Climate Accord’s Goals

The NIE reaffirms what climate scientists have already warned: The world is off track to meet the Paris climate accord’s goals of keeping the Earth’s temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial norms. Worse, estimates show that temperatures are expected to increase 2.0 degrees Celsius by midcentury. This is the NIE’s key takeaway

The Paris climate agreement binds 190 nations to a process that relies heavily on voluntary reporting without a clear, legally enforceable mechanism. The agreement sets a goal of “limit[ing] the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” and “holding the increase in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius.” Exceeding this threshold will lead to catastrophic, irreversible harm. Unfortunately, the NIE notes, “current policies and pledges are insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.” Several key judgments flow from the NIE’s assessment that the world is poised to blast through these temperature thresholds. For example, with a 2.0 degree rise, 99 percent of coral reefs will suffer long-term degradation. This eliminates an entire ecosystem serving 500 million people who rely on coral reefs for economic and food security. And with a 2.0 degree rise, envision an ice-free Arctic summer every five years, increasing competition over resource and transit route access. 

The NIE’s blunt assessment provides sobering context for the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which now takes on an increased importance. How the NIE’s assessment will shape climate negotiations at Glasgow remains to be seen, but it is now impossible to deny the destructive climate emissions trajectory.

Climate Change Will Exacerbate Existing Geopolitical Divides 

Beyond the physical destabilization that climate change will cause, so-called decarbonization pressure—that is, pressure to mitigate climate change—will lead to political destabilization. As decarbonization pressure increases, nations will argue over climate mitigation and who should reduce their share of fair emissions, according to the NIE. Enter the era of the “climate blame game.”

Climate change has been described aptly as “the mother of all collective action problems”—the atmosphere could not care less where the greenhouse gas emissions originate from. The Earth continues to warm and geopolitical tensions rise, irrespective of how or where greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere. 

Outside the climate blame game, look for growing divisions between developed and developing nations, between petrostates and non-petrostates, and between China and the United States. 

First, pressure to decarbonize will further divide the developing world from the developed world. Developing nations have emitted far less greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere than developed nations, but they lack the resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

Second, the NIE estimates that existing petrostates—more than 20 nations whose economies are highly dependent on fossil fuel exports—will resist decarbonization efforts. This list includes Russia. Decarbonization represents an existential threat to their economies, and most of these nations will struggle to diversify their economies. 

Finally, climate change will play an increasingly important role in U.S.-Chinese relations as the two largest emitters jostle for advantage in a climate-destabilized world.

 All Roads Increasingly Lead to China on Climate Action 

The NIE correctly notes that China is, by far, the largest greenhouse gas emitter on an annualized basis. The U.S. remains the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere—a point often brought up by developing nations that are seeking to grow their economies. The U.S’s greenhouse gas emissions have decreased slightly since their peak in 2005 (the EU’s carbon emissions peaked as far back as 1979). Both the U.S. and the EU are on a slight downward glidepath to decrease through 2030. By contrast, both China’s and India’s emissions have skyrocketed since the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated in the early 1990s and will grow through 2030. China’s emissions account for 30 percent of all worldwide emissions and China continues to build coal-fired power plants that will produce harmful emissions for decades to come. 

China has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. However, the NIE assesses that “some countries are using a pledge to mask a lack of seriousness,” noting that China has not released its plans for meeting its 2060 net-zero pledge. Just how serious China is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains an open question. As the Glasgow conference nears, more nations (such as Saudi Arabia) have made net-zero pledges. Will this climate pledge-a-thon be followed through with legal enforcement and implementation? Unclear.

At the same time, the NIE notes that China is in a comparably strong position to compete in the renewable energy field. China controls about half the minerals used in renewable energy technology, which includes materials for electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar panels. China has therefore emerged as the critical nation to address the climate crisis. This includes both climate mitigation efforts and sourcing renewable energy technology to wean the world from fossil fuels. 

In sum, future U.S. reductions in greenhouse gas emissions—while necessary and important—are less determinative of future climate progress. What China does (or does not do) to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions will have an outsized role in shaping future climate progress. This is sobering. The fate of international climate governance is increasingly in the hands of a rising superpower with which the U.S. shares a fraught relationship. With tensions rising between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea, trade policy and Taiwan policy, climate change presents yet another potential wedge issue between the U.S. and China.

Identification of Specific Geopolitical “Flashpoints”

The NIE explicitly focuses on climate impacts on two regional “arcs of vulnerability” and 11 climate-exposed “countries of concern.” 

The NIE identifies Central Africa and small island states in the Pacific as the two regions most vulnerable to climate-driven instability. For some small island nations, climate change is, literally, an existential issue. While the NIE estimates that no island nation is forecast to fully disappear by 2040, this should provide little comfort. At some point, island nations become uninhabitable due to food and water security and saltwater intrusion in the groundwater. Indeed, the NIE estimates that 20 percent of some island nations’ landmass will disappear by 2040. Some climate scientists estimate that climate change-driven sea level rise and wave-driven flooding will cause four atoll nations to disappear this century. Imagine—what would be the U.S.’s reaction if the nation were on a climate collision course to lose 20 percent of its coastline? That’s the climate reality for several Pacific Small Island Developing States. 

Just the specter of possible nation extinction can destabilize a U.N. system that is predicated on the sovereign equality and territorial integrity of its members. Can a state exist under international law if it loses its physical territory to climate impacts? And what is the responsibility of other nations—particularly developed nations, the worst climate offenders—to assist these climate migrants?

The NIE also identifies 11 developing nations that it assesses will be the least able to adapt to climate change. These are labeled “highly vulnerable countries of concern” and include Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras—four nations that have already seen massive external displacement due to natural disasters. This displacement has exacerbated the flow of migrants to the southern U.S. border. These nations in particular lack the financial resources and governance capacity to adapt to climate change effects, increasing the migration risk to the U.S. Not surprisingly, the NIE estimates that “cross-border migration attributed to climate impacts” and “greater demand for aid and humanitarian relief” are at high risk to occur. According to the NIE:

For the fifth consecutive year, prolonged dry spells and excessive rains have devastated maize and bean crops in Central America’s dry corridor. Yields for these and other crops in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are projected to decline significantly because of climate change.

While Republicans have been critical of the Biden administration’s response at the border, they have also thwarted any legislative action on climate change. This is out of step with transboundary climate risks and realities. Indeed, the NIE showcases just how untenable this position is: Climate change and cross-border migration to the southern border are inextricably linked. The United States saw a historically high number of border crossing attempts during the last fiscal year, and climate impacts on these highly vulnerable countries of concern will play an outsized role in future migration flows. With the NIE’s identification of these specific nations as highly vulnerable to climate change, pressure should build on Congress to address climate change in some capacity.

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the National Security Council’s Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration uses the term “climate migrants,” not “climate refugees,” to refer to people fleeing from climate-exacerbated drought, food insecurity and territorial loss. This may be a tacit acknowledgment that people fleeing from climate impacts are not refugees with legally protected status under international law. As I’ve noted before, the Refugee Convention is silent on migrants fleeing environmental disaster. And the Framework Convention and follow-on accords do not directly provide legal protections for climate migrants fleeing environmental or imminent climate disaster. Just as climate change is poised to destabilize the physical environment, it may destabilize legal conceptions of “refugee” as people flee from climate impacts and seek protection.

Innovative Climate Solutions Present Opportunities and Risks

In the face of growing greenhouse gas emissions, there is a clear need for innovative climate solutions. 

For example, climate geoengineering technologies—the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system—presents both opportunities and risks. Think massive solar geoengineering projects that seek to deflect sunlight away from the Earth. The risks and unintended consequences of deploying such technology are still not fully clear. As the Earth warms, nations may grow desperate to reverse global warming. The NIE estimates that there is a growing risk that nations will act unilaterally in deploying geoengineering technologies in the atmosphere. The international community lacks a meaningful governance dialogue on geoengineering. If a geoengineering technology is deployed unsuccessfully, the results could be disastrous as weather patterns change and the Earth’s biosphere may be permanently altered. The threat of unilateral geoengineering action should sound the alarm on a global governance agreement that addresses how geoengineering technology will be employed, if at all. 

The U.S. is a leader in carbon dioxide removal technologies and has robust scientific and entrepreneurial resources that could drive carbon sequestration and other technological climate solutions. The NIE states that the U.S. is “in a relatively better position than other countries to deal with the major costs and dislocation of forecasted change, in part because they have a greater resource to adapt.” Such an explicit acknowledgement deserves further thought. 

Finally, a note about the sequencing of these reports, which were all issued at the same time. Ideally, the NIE’s report would have been issued first and drive the adaptation plans, resources and reports issued by the other departments. That seems consistent with the National Intelligence Council’s statutory mission and purpose. Presumably, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security all shared drafts of their concurrently issued reports with one another; however, it can be difficult at times to see how the different climate plans and reports are in direct conversation with each other. 

For example, the NIE’s stark assessment that the world will exceed the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree threshold by 2030 is absent from the Pentagon’s Climate Adaptation Plan and its Climate Risk Analysis. There are also some other inconsistencies. The Defense Department uses a slightly different definition of adaptation, mitigation and climate change than the National Security Council report. And the Defense Department is an enormous emitter of greenhouse gas emissions by institution. Ideally, one of the Pentagon’s reports would have outlined with some level of precision the agency’s plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And the National Security Council’s migration report lists El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as nations disproportionately affected by climate change—that’s a bit different from the NIE’s assessment, which omits El Salvador and includes Nicaragua. 

But perhaps these are minor quibbles, particularly in light of the forward-looking nature of these reports and the sheer enormity of the climate challenge. The Pentagon’s Climate Risk Analysis, for example, is a groundbreaking document, focusing on the strategic risks posed by climate change. It makes clear that deep planning for future climate risk is already underway and is being integrated across the Department of Defense. 

Where Does the United States Go From Here?

First, these are executive branch documents that signal the Biden administration’s desire to integrate climate change planning across the national security enterprise. But they should not substitute for congressional action on climate. Legislative action is far more likely to survive political whims. Recall that the Trump administration moved away from both the Paris Agreement and climate security issues more broadly, removing any mention of climate change from both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Congress passed several defense adaptation measures via annualized defense spending bills and created the Climate Security Advisory Council by statute. But it remains unclear what role climate change will have in the forthcoming reconciliation packages. The climate security legislation work should continue apace. 

Second, these reports can serve an important scene-setting function that will drive the implementation of their recommendations. And the forthcoming National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy offer additional opportunities to highlight the central role of climate change in national security planning. Biden’s earlier executive order requires annual progress reports on combating the climate crisis, which should give a better sense of how each agency is implementing its respective climate report. By that time, any progress made at the Glasgow conference and progress on the infrastructure and Build Back Better package making its way through Congress will become clearer. 

Finally, in the absence of meaningful, comprehensive climate change legislation, Biden should consider all available legal authorities to immediately tackle this problem, which will only grow more severe over time. Legislation is preferable for its breadth and, as discussed above, likely durability when compared to executive action. But these reports highlight the need for innovative legal solutions and for the U.S. to use all available tools at its disposal to avert irreversible, catastrophic climate harm. Internationally, will the U.N. Security Council (where the U.S. is a permanent member) declare climate change a threat to international peace and security, thus invoking special legal authorities? Domestically, will political pressure build for Biden to declare a national climate emergency?

As an environmental attorney serving in the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, from 2012 to 2015, I witnessed firsthand how rising seas and subsiding soils threaten the very existence of the largest naval base in the world. Since that time, the international community has made great advances in understanding that climate change not only poses a threat to military infrastructure—which it certainly does—but also is poised to destabilize the broader geopolitical environment. The reports issued last week represent a significant step in the nation’s collective understanding of a climate-destabilized future. The NIE highlights that the world may already be in the “climate-security century.” How the U.S. responds may well define its national security posture this century.

Mark Nevitt is an Associate Professor of Law at the Emory University School of Law. Before joining Emory University, Nevitt served as an Associate Professor of Law at the Syracuse University College of Law and the Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Law at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. From 2017-2019 Nevitt served as the Sharswood Fellow, Lecturer-in-Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he taught climate change law and policy, and a seminar on national security law and society. Nevitt recently completed grant-funded research via the Kleinman Center at the University of Pennsylvania addressing the legal issues associated with climate adaptation and managed retreat. Before academia, Nevitt served as both a tactical jet aviator and attorney (JAG) in the United States Navy, serving in the rank of commander.

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