White House Announces Steps to Address Climate and National Security Alongside New Intelligence Assessment

Yesterday afternoon President Obama announced a new Presidential Memorandum on climate change and national security. The policy directs 20 federal agencies to consider the national security implications of climate change and establish a working group that will develop a Climate Change and National Security Action Plan for the federal government.

Released alongside the new policy is the first unclassified report by the U.S. intelligence community that examines the pathways by which climate change may affect national security. The concerns expressed in the assessment by the U.S. National Intelligence Council echo sentiments shared by the Pentagon and a bevy of retired U.S. military officers: “Climate change and its resulting effects are likely to pose wide-ranging national security challenges for the United States and other countries.”

The two releases represent major steps by different parts of the U.S. government. The White House memo continues the president’s efforts to instill responses to climate change into the mechanics of the federal government, while the intelligence assessment represents a consensus opinion from the intelligence community on climate change’s threat level to national security interests.

Incorporating Into the Federal Government

President Obama has signed a series of executive orders since his first year in office requiring all federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to produce and regularly update a climate change adaptation plan and reduce certain greenhouse gas emissions. This new memo establishes procedures to try to catch and address national security implications as well.

A Federal Climate and National Security Working Group is being created, made up of members of the National Security Council staff, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and “over 20 federal agencies and offices with climate science, intelligence, and national security responsibilities.” Over the course of the next 90 days the group will identify priorities, develop ways that climate science and intelligence can inform national security planning, and ultimately produce a Climate Change and National Security Action Plan.

This action plan is expected to identify gaps and improve information sharing between agencies, develop research guidelines to better understand how to “detect climate intervention activities” (a nod to the threat of geoengineering?), and identify geographic areas of vulnerability. Finally the action plan is expected to produce recommendations for the Secretary of State “to help ensure that the work of U.S. embassies, including their planning processes, are better informed by relevant climate change-related analyses.” Secretary of State Kerry applauded the memo, saying “we’ve already begun to take critical steps at the State Department” and noting the climate task force the department created last year.

Individual federal agencies are in turn required to develop implementation plans that address climate-related threats to national security as they relate to the agency’s mission, including consideration of the economic impacts of climate change, migration and displacement, water and food security, nutrition and health, and infrastructure. It’s not clear, however, whether this is applicable to all agencies or just those identified by the Climate Change and National Security Action Plan.

6 Ways Climate Change Affects National Security

The intelligence assessment does not evaluate the science of climate change nor, as a rule, does it provide policy recommendations. Instead it breaks down six pathways by which climate change, as understood by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, could credibly affect national security.

These six pathways are:

Climate change and conflict collide in the context of complex scenarios where extreme weather and greater climatic changes intersect with social, political, and economic factors. For example, the assessment suggests that “rapid sequences of relatively modest weather events may cause more damage than very powerful single events” because the threat to stability is largely a factor of a “state’s capacity to respond and recover.” Resilience is a powerful predictor of stability in a world undergoing dramatic changes in the climate system.

The assessment notes the example of Yemen. Unusually warm conditions in the Arabian Sea last year produced an unprecedented two tropical cyclones in the span of 10 days, including the first hurricane-strength storm to hit the country in recorded history. The compounding effect of the storms, existing water shortages, and humanitarian crises due to war paralyzed relief efforts. Finally, heavy rains bred an abnormally large locust population with the potential to devastate the agricultural sector. Had these events occurred over a longer timeline, the government and NGOs may have been able to provide better relief, but these efforts were simply overwhelmed by the cluster of disasters.

Resource availability, particularly aggregate supply of water and arable land, could also become a key factor in disputes between local groups. The assessment cites small-scale incidents within national borders, such as conflicts between agriculturalists and pastoralists in Nigeria, violence between citizens and police on the outskirts of water-stressed Mexico City, and mass protests and violence over water shortages in Mauritania, as recent examples. And in situations where food aid is needed, access to food could be used as a tool of control by terrorists, such as Al Shabaab’s exploitation during the 2011-13 famine in Somalia.

Anticipating New Challenges

The National Intelligence Council also identified several emerging threats. The assessment anticipates that sudden extreme events and slow onset events alike will displace an increasing number of people, some temporarily and some permanently. The authors judge that “over 20 years, the net effects of climate change on the patterns of global human movement and statelessness could be dramatic, perhaps unprecedented. If unanticipated, they could overwhelm government infrastructure and resources, and threaten the social fabric of communities.”

Climate change will transform how we navigate the world and the accessibility of large, unexploited natural resource reserves. The Arctic region, with its double-time warming, is opening up new avenues for shipping – and geopolitical dispute. Already, there is disagreement over Russia’s claims on the Arctic Shelf. There is also concern over the impact of thawing permafrost on infrastructure, particularly the China-Russia crude oil pipeline.

In the arena of climate diplomacy, there are risks of conflict over climate responses. The possibility of unintended “backdraft” from climate actions, taken unilaterally or with limited consultation, and the unknown consequences of geoengineering raise questions over what sorts of future actions can and should be pursued.

In conjunction with these changes, military capabilities and basing will not be immune to the effects of rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, punishing heatwaves, and drought. The ability for the U.S. military to respond to foreign crises could be severely limited by damage to infrastructure at home and abroad.

The underlying threat identified by the intelligence community is one of destabilization – via changes in resource availability, movements of people, new geopolitical battle lines, and increased economic burden (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated climate change costs for the United States could reach $180 billion before the end of the century, unless global action is taken).

Under current modeling scenarios, the underappreciated danger of climate change lies at the intersections of pre-existing vulnerabilities and the hampered ability of societies to cope with new and unpredictable disasters. It is under these conditions that the National Intelligence Council raises concerns over “countries with weak political institutions, poor economic conditions, or where other risk factors for political strife are already present [being] most vulnerable to climate-linked instability.”

Improving the U.S. government’s climate preparedness appears to be a priority for President Obama before the end of his term in January, especially with the uncertainty of the next officeholder’s approach to the issue.

Sources: The Guardian, Institute for War and Peace Reporting National Intelligence Council, The New York Times, Reuters, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Washington Post, The White House.

Photo Credit: Iowa National Guard members construct a levee in June 2008, courtesy of Oscar M. Sanchez-Alvarez/U.S. Air Force.