From the outset of Joe Biden’s run for the American presidency, he pledged to look at national security with fresh eyes. Evolving systemic threats like climate change, often relegated to the portfolios of environmental experts and science agencies, were repeatedly mentioned in his plans to remake U.S. defense and foreign policy. “Climate change is the existential threat to humanity,” he often reiterated in the closing days of his campaign.
Now, with the first members of President-elect Biden’s national security team announced, it’s clear that he has taken the first steps to make good on these campaign promises. In the past few years, nominees like Blinken, Sullivan, and Haines have each referenced the need for the U.S. to prioritize addressing climate change in its approach to global challenges. And with the creation of a cabinet-level Presidential Climate Envoy, long-time climate security leader John Kerry will sit in every meeting of the National Security Council with his eye trained on climate threats.
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.
ALEXANDRIA, VA, November 4, 2020—The Department of Defense’s (DoD) Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) is seeking to fund environmental research and development in the Resource Conservation and Resiliency program area. SERDP invests across the broad spectrum of basic and applied research, as well as advanced technology development. The development and application of innovative environmental technologies will reduce the costs, environmental risks, and time required to resolve environmental problems while, at the same time, enhancing and sustaining military readiness.
While climate change and its implications for security have been acknowledged many times by international military leaders (see here for example), as well as by senior leaders in the U.S. Department of Defense (here), the United National Security Council (UNSC) has only addressed the issue in fits and starts thus far, despite the institution’s global charge to maintain international peace and security (here). One reason for this is the individualized lens that each member country uses to assess climate change and its effect on their own security, as well as others. This creates a barrier to a consensus on what the UNSC’s general agenda should be on climate change despite individual resolutions that single out specific areas or states where climate change and its effects on security, e.g., food insecurity, are mentioned and addressed (see here and here). Other U.N. organizations have readily embraced climate change and security within their programs (here).
The deleterious effects of high temperatures and humidity on the performance of aircraft are exacerbated in many places around the world under climate change. Last year, in a Center for Climate and Security briefer, these effects were discussed for both rotary and fixed wing aircraft. They include reductions in take-off weight because of reduced lift and, longer take-off and landing distances. The result will be that military operations will be at higher risk of disruption or outright failure, particularly in those locations where longer over-water distances need to be traversed. Complementing the briefer is a recent study by Gratton et al. (2020) that collected and analyzed climate change effects on the operation of two types of commercial, civilian aircraft that are commonly used at Greek airports.
Supply chains are the less visible parts of many large, global companies, such as Apple, Toyota, and Boeing. For each of these companies, their many suppliers incrementally provide parts that are eventually assembled into finished products, whether they are hand-held smartphones or part of vehicles that transport a few or many people. Disruptions to suppliers can have devastating effects on the ability of a company to complete finished products. The most recent example of this are the shortages in personal protective equipment, e.g., masks, surgical gowns, and face shields, for health-care workers involved in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the Department of Defense (DoD), disruptions to its global supply chain, particularly those suppliers involved in mission-critical products and services, will degrade DoD’s ability to respond when it is called upon. When these disruptions are caused or influenced by climate change, supply chain management under climate change becomes a strategic vulnerability. The probability of a disruption to one or more critical suppliers is never-ending, given their number and dispersed locations around the globe.
Heightened militarization in the Himalayan region has impeded diplomatic and multilateral efforts to tackle critical climate issues endangering one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. In early June, at least 20 soldiers perished in a historic clash between Indian and Chinese troops along the disputed Himalayan border in Ladakh. This confrontation is the most recent deadly episode in a long history of border disputes between the two countries. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) demarcation, intended to designate which country controlls specific territory, was established after the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Yet, according to The Indian Express, efforts to clarify the exact location of the LAC in the Ladakh region have “effectively stalled since 2002.”
The pandemic of Covid-19 has tremendous and largely unknown implications for global health, security, and economic prosperity, but as we work diligently to steer the future toward positive outcomes, we must not lose track of the growing challenges and opportunities that continually unfold with another well-known but not well-understood global phenomenon — the ocean.
The ocean and its resources are inextricably tied to human health, the economy, and security. The link between the environment, particularly the ocean, and human health, is an area of increasing global importance as climate change increases the incidence of toxin release from harmful algal blooms, damage from catastrophic weather events, and potential for contagion from waterborne viruses and bacteria. These threats are not just related to health but also to security. Climate change is a core systemic risk to the 21st century world, and we must specifically address the ocean in this discussion.
The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) seeks to hire a Deputy Director for its Center for Climate and Security (CCS). This is an exciting growth opportunity for the right candidate. CSR seeks candidates with the vision and potential needed to become a true leader in national and international security. The Deputy Director will have the opportunity to become a leading voice on the intersection of climate and security, a field of rapidly-growing importance and rising relevance in security affairs. See the full job description below, and apply at this link.
As military planners look out to future operating environments that they may face, they need to continue to anticipate the changing social, environmental, political, and economic conditions that populations may experience when these populations are increasingly affected by climate change. Climate change will dynamically influence many societal variables including migration, food security, and conflict. Planners may be particularly drawn to the causes of conflict. Mach et. al (2020) present four areas of future research that would assist planners with better understanding the relationship between climate change and armed conflict.