Climate Change and Security

A Central Role for Climate Change in the New U.S. National Security Strategy

By Erin Sikorsky
Tuesday, November 1, 2022, 8:16 AM

Since taking office, President Biden and his national security team have frequently termed climate change an “existential threat” to the U.S. and the world. The new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), released in late October, reveals that such terminology is not just rhetoric and suggests the administration is interested in taking a serious step forward in reimagining the definition of U.S. national security. Climate change is mentioned a whopping 63 times (compared to 71 mentions of Russia and 55 mentions of China). More important than the number of mentions, however, is how climate change is framed—as a top-tier threat on par with, and influenced by, geopolitical challenges from U.S. adversaries and competitors. 

Why does framing matter? One of the most important functions of the NSS is its storytelling power. Such documents provide a narrative for the American people and the world that forms viewpoints, influences strategic decisions and resource allocation, and changes institutional structures. The new NSS tells a new story about climate threats—one that puts them at the center of shaping U.S. security in the decades to come. 

The new NSS makes this shift explicit, stating:

people all over the world are struggling to cope with the effects of shared challenges that cross borders—whether it is climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, or inflation. These shared challenges are not marginal issues that are secondary to geopolitics. They are at the very core of national and international security and must be treated as such.

In other words, climate change is not a “soft” security issue; it is not less important than direct threats from states but is at the heart of keeping the U.S. safe. 

Critically, the strategy goes further than merely putting climate change toward the top of the list of security threats facing the U.S. It also provides a systemic analysis of the international security landscape, drawing a clear link between the competitive geopolitical environment and shared threats like climate change, pandemics, and terrorism. As the strategy posits:

Heightened competition between democracies and autocracies is just one of two critical trends we face. The other is shared challenges—or what some call transnational challenges—that do not respect borders and affect all nations. These two trends affect each other—geopolitical competition changes, and often complicates, the context in which shared challenges can be addressed while those problems often exacerbate geopolitical competition …. We need a strategy that not only deals with both but recognizes the relationship between them and adjusts accordingly.

The NSS provides a key example of this dynamic in its discussion of what exactly democracies and autocracies are competing over: the ability to set the rules of the road going forward. The strategy acknowledges that many rules and norms are outdated and, at times, counterproductive, stating:

Since 1945, the United States has led the creation of institutions, norms, and standards to govern international trade and investment, economic policy, and technology. These mechanisms advanced America’s economic and geopolitical aims and benefited people around the world by shaping how governments and economies interacted—and did so in ways that aligned with U.S interests and values. These mechanisms have not kept pace with economic or technological changes, and today risk being irrelevant, or in certain cases, actively harmful to solving the challenges we now face.

This gap—between the current security landscape and the existing mechanisms for governing said landscape—is particularly apparent when it comes to the impacts of climate change. Climate hazards such as sea level rise, desertification, and heat waves will reshape national boundaries and drive cross-border migration, raising important questions about citizenship and sovereignty. Questions around liability for global warming are growing sharper and more challenging. For example: What do the countries that have emitted the most greenhouse gases owe the countries that are the lowest emitters but are feeling the most significant effects of warming? Who decides? What are the rules of the road for the research and deployment of solar geoengineering? How does the international community manage risks of conflict in an increasingly open Arctic? 

Current international governance mechanisms and institutions do not provide satisfactory pathways for developing answers to these questions. Competition over leading the development of new norms and mechanisms to manage these challenges will be a defining feature of the national security landscape in years to come; the NSS is right to recognize this dynamic. 

Another strength of the strategy is its acknowledgement that the U.S. cannot lead in this competition without getting its own house in order to tackle climate change. It is, therefore, refreshing that this document draws a connection between domestic and international policy. The strategy notes:

Global action begins at home, where we are making unprecedented generational investments in the clean energy transition through the [Inflation Reduction Act], simultaneously creating millions of good paying jobs and strengthening American industries. … This domestic work is key to our international credibility, and to getting other countries to up their own ambition and action.

It is one thing to articulate this vision in a strategy document and quite another to implement it. As I have argued previously, truly addressing the security threats posed by climate change will require mainstreaming the topic into regional and country-level offices and policies. To that end, while the climate mentions in the regional sections of the NSS are perfunctory at best, it is heartening to see the extent to which climate considerations are integrated into White House regional strategies for sub-Saharan Africa, the Arctic, and the Pacific Islands—all of which were released before the NSS. For example, the Pacific Partnership Strategy notes that the climate crisis is the region’s “top security concern” and commits the U.S. to “partnering with the Pacific Islands in adapting to and managing the impacts of climate change on lives, health, and livelihoods.” Following through on these strategies requires adequate resources—especially for investment in adaptation and resilience measures for U.S. allies and partners. To this end, one proposal mentioned in the NSS that deserves immediate attention and funding is the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), a whole-of-government initiative focused on funding climate adaptation programs worldwide. 

As the NSS makes clear, fully funding programs like PREPARE or mainstreaming climate considerations into regional and bilateral strategies does not detract from competition with China but, instead, strengthens the U.S. position. According to the NSS, a key advantage in this is the U.S.’s “unrivaled network of allies and partners [that] protects and advances our interests around the world—and is the envy of our adversaries.” Ensuring those allies and partners are resilient to climate hazards is imperative if the U.S. expects to call on them to help with other threats in the future, as governments that are overwhelmed with domestic challenges brought on by extreme weather or food insecurity cannot look outward and support other U.S. priorities. 

Some critics of the Biden administration’s NSS have said that it is too ambitious. Instead, I would posit that it actually reflects a bit of humility. For the first time, it recognizes that ignoring or downplaying transnational, “actorless” threats like climate change and pandemics will impede the U.S.’s ability to tackle other challenges. It recognizes that the previous treatment of these topics in national security conversations—as secondary or as one of a laundry list of additional threats—was inadequate, starkly reminding the reader that “[i]f parents cannot feed their children, nothing else matters.” It proposes a new framework for understanding the importance of these issues, linking the outcomes of geopolitical competition to the world’s ability to address the existential threat of climate change. Of course, this is not easy or straightforward; But telling a new, compelling story about U.S. national security in the decades to come that includes climate change is an important step toward progress.