Transition 2016

Climate Change and National Security: An Opportunity for the Trump Administration—and Everyone Else

By Alice C. Hill, Jane Chong
Monday, December 19, 2016, 11:15 AM

After campaigning on the promise to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, last week President-elect Trump seemed to reaffirm his ambivalence about the scientific consensus on the subject when he declared that “[n]obody really knows” whether climate change is real. Two days later, the Washington Post reported that scientists are feverishly copying reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of protecting irreplaceable public data from a skeptical new administration.

On the one hand, these developments could mark an abrupt and chilling about-face from where we were just three months ago. On September 21, 2016, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum directing 20 departments and agencies across the federal government to “ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans.” Just as important was the accompanying National Intelligence Council (NIC) report released the same day, which warns that "[l]ong-term changes in climate will produce more extreme weather events" that "will almost certainly have significant effects, both direct and indirect, across social, economic, political, and security realms during the next 20 years.” [Full disclosure: One of the authors, Alice Hill, led the development of the Presidential Memorandum on Climate Change and National Security in her capacity as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience Policy at the National Security Council.]

On the other hand, Trump has indicated he has an “open mind” about the challenges presented by global warming. This suggests the glimmer of an opportunity, one that the national security community—so far sluggish in devoting resources to the movement to build the nation’s climate risk and resilience capacity—is duty-bound to catapult to the top of its own priority deck.

Those who do not instinctively see climate change in national security terms should take a moment to consider the NIC report. It is stunning for what it tells us about not only the magnitude and likelihood of future threats but also the implications of climate effects already being felt around the globe today. The report explains that climate change is already having major impacts that are “likely to pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades.”

The report focuses on six particular pathways giving rise to these challenges:

  • Threats to the stability of countries;
  • Heightened social and political tensions;
  • Adverse effects on food prices and availability;
  • Increased risks to human health;
  • Negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness; and
  • Potential climate discontinuities and secondary surprises.

The report also offers timeframes for these emerging climate-related threats to national security—starting with the present:

  • Right now, the effects resulting from changing trends in extreme weather events indicate that climate-related disruptions are already under way.
  • Over the next five years, the security risks for the United States linked to climate change will increase, primarily due to distinct extreme weather events and the exacerbation of already strained conditions, such as water shortages.
  • Over the next 20 years, in addition to increasingly disruptive extreme weather events, the projected climate change will result in sustained direct and indirect effects on U.S. national security.  Even modest weather events will cause disruption as they come in rapid sequence or as part of a cluster.

In an interview with the New York Times shortly before the release of his climate change memorandum, President Obama described climate change threats as “terrifying” and “enormously disruptive.” But perhaps the most terrifying subject discussed in that interview is the continuing difficulty of mobilizing public opinion at home. This is a problem that stems in part from a denial of causes, and in part from a denial of consequences.

As to causes, less than half of Americans believe human activity has anything to do with global warming. The divergence of opinion on the question of cause is problematic because it all but ensures a deficient response in counteracting current trends. We must cut our carbon emissions now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change in the future.

Another kind of difficulty is presented by our continuing resistance to understanding climate change in terms of the security consequences. This has translated into slowness in devoting the necessary attention to the study and implementation of resilience measures. A 2003 Defense Department report highlighted some of the mechanics of this inertia when it observed that “[v]iolence and disruption stemming from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed to today.” Fully confronting this new type of threat will require a shift in mindset and an expansion of focus, from “conflicts over ideology, religion, or national honor” to consideration of, among other things, “[m]ilitary confrontation . . .  triggered by a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water.”

For years, the Defense Department has described climate change as a “threat multiplier,” one that promises to exacerbate natural disasters and resource insecurity and thereby catalyze conflicts, instability, population displacement and state failure throughout the globe—and on a timeline that has already begun. Research is revealing the role climate change played in the Arab Spring and in the horrific, still-unfolding events in Syria, where severe drought and crop failure triggered mass internal migration, resources shortages, corruption, and revolution.

Some experts  challenge statements that climate change is one of the most serious national security threats we face. Putting aside that debate, there is a critical need to educate a skeptical American public on the security dimensions of the environmental crisis. The antecedent question is not the ranking of climate change as a national security threat, but more objectively, whether it is a threat and, if so, what sort of national security problem it is.

Indeed, underplaying the complex but undeniable relationship between climate change and global insecurity is all but guaranteed to lead to real and consequential errors. For example, influential legislators like Senator James Inhofe (of ziplocked snowball fame) have insisted that climate change is an overblown problem that must not be allowed to steal thunder from more immediate threats like ISIS and nuclear weapons. This is profoundly mistaken: to heed climate change is not to ignore conventional threats but to insist on addressing the instability vectors that both give rise to and intensify all of the challenges we so readily accept as security problems, from refugee crises to resource wars, from pandemic disease to terrorism.

For exactly this reason, the U.S. military and Intelligence Community have led efforts to raise awareness on both of the fronts described—climate change as real phenomenon and as national and global security issue. Since publishing its first major assessment of the issue in 2008, the NIC has spearheaded continuing research into the national security implications of climate change in six countries/regions of the world. Despite congressional resistance, the Pentagon has urged a comprehensive response to the threats created by rising sea levels, including those directly and immediately posed to military installations along the East and Gulf Coasts.

Recently, the Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), a non-partisan group of 43 U.S.-based national security and foreign policy experts, released a briefing book urging the new administration to “comprehensively address the security risks of climate change at all levels of national security planning” and setting forth recommendations to that end. The prevailing concern now is that the Trump administration will not take these recommendations seriously.

In light of Trump’s stated willingness to consider the evidence, however, the focus must be on providing the new administration everything it needs to ensure the United States presses on in developing a strategic response to the destabilizing effects of global warming. One of those things is keeping this issue at the fore by maximizing consensus. As the recent NIC report makes clear, resilience strategy is the name of the game when it comes to addressing the tremendous security challenges created by global warming. But we will need to be resilient, too, in the face of differences of opinion in what is, for now, a politically charged realm. That means a far larger, louder, more diverse coalition of voices intent on keeping global warming on the table as a major set of twenty-first-century security problems deserving of sustained, primetime attention. That coalition must include not just environmentalists but also everyone who cares about national and global security.