A Very Strong Signal: 5 Key Takeaways on John Kerry’s U.S. Climate Envoy Role and Seat on the National Security Council

By John Conger, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell

On Monday, U.S. President-Elect Biden announced several members of his national security team.  They included Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State, Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security, Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as United Nations Ambassador, Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor, and… former Secretary of State John Kerry as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. While each of these announcements have positive implications for how climate change is addressed by the national security enterprise, let’s explore five key implications of this last announcement. 

  1. Climate change is seen by the Biden team as a high-level national security issue. Secretary Kerry’s quote as part of the announcement emphasized this point: “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat that it is.”  The fact that the climate position was announced as part of the national security team adds emphasis to this point.

  2. Climate change will have a significantly elevated stature within national security decision-making. Secretary Kerry will have a seat on the National Security Council, and presumably hold Cabinet-level status, thus bringing climate change into discussions and decision-making on a much wider range of national security priorities.  This is a key example of national security being appropriately “climate-proofed” as we call for in the Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent framework, given its ability to exacerbate a whole range of security problems. Kerry’s seniority as a former Secretary of State means that he will undoubtedly have the ear of both the National Security Advisor and the President himself. This is a key step that we have advocated for many years at the Center for Climate and Security. Effectively, in order for climate change to be taken seriously as a core U.S. security priority, it must have a champion with the authority to both drive interagency action, and be a credible negotiator on the international stage. For example:
    • In 2016, the Center for Climate and Security’s Climate and Security Advisory Group called for the next Administration to “Assign a cabinet-level official reporting directly to the President to fill a leadership role on climate change and security issues. This position would coordinate directly with the National Security Advisor, the National Security Council Staff (NSC), and the leadership and staffs of relevant departments and agencies.
    • In 2018, despite the political winds blowing firmly against it, we stated: “The National Security Advisor should designate a senior official within the NSC, as a lead on interagency efforts to address climate change impacts on national and homeland security.
    • Finally, in our 2019 Climate and Security Plan for America, we called on the next Administration to “… create a new White House Office on Climate Security, led by a senior White House official…with significant experience and credibility in the national security field, who reports directly to the President and provides regular briefings. In order to ensure its effectiveness, the Office should be given authority over all work related to climate security that is conducted across the Executive Office of the President.”

  3. President-elect Biden intends to follow through on his campaign commitments.  In his campaign plan, President-elect Biden promised to make climate change a core national security issue.  This is a huge step in that direction, and it portends well for the other climate security commitments he made.  It also reflects the core priorities he outlined in his Transition effort, where climate change is one of only four top priorities listed.

  4. Leading with a Bipartisan Issue.  While climate change is sometimes politically polarizing, the intersection of climate change and national security has been an area of bipartisan agreement in recent years.  This could signal an effort to emphasize cooperative approaches to ensure early progress on the climate issue.

  5. The Paris Caveat.  At the Center for Climate and Security, we believe it is imperative for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Agreement in an effort to restore American leadership, and indeed, go well beyond those commitments in order to stave off potentially catastrophic risks to security.  When signed by the US, this agreement was somewhat politically polarizing because critics argued it would negatively affect the economy and American jobs.  In fact, while the agreement sets emissions reduction goals, it carries no legal weight, poses zero risk to American jobs, and enhances our leadership role internationally, which is critical for U.S. national security in an era of rising great powers.  Any steps to reduce emissions or pass legislation would need to be individually passed by Congress, and could not be forced by this accord.  Clearly, since Secretary Kerry played a pivotal role in crafting the agreement, his mere presence could revive this specious political argument. However, the political climate (pun intended) has changes quite a bit on climate change since the Paris agreement was signed, with growing calls from both sides of the aisle to lead both domestically and internationally on the issue.

As noted above, in our Climate Security Plan for America we proposed the creation of a senior White House official reporting directly to the President to lead on climate security issues within the Executive Office of the President.  That looks a lot like what was just announced, in both spirit and practice, and so we enthusiastically applaud this announcement, while encouraging former Secretary Kerry to address the nexus of climate and security as robustly as possible.  Going back to John Kerry’s quote: “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat that it is.”  That’s a good indication that we’ll likely see a lot of progress on climate security during the next Administration. A very strong signal has been sent. We now look forward to the Biden Administration turning that signal into comprehensive action that’s commensurate to the scale and scope of this potentially catastrophic threat to the U.S. and the world.

Leave a Reply