Climate Change Poses a Widening Threat to National Security

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WASHINGTON — Worsening conflict within and between nations. Increased dislocation and migration as people flee climate-fueled instability. Heightened military tension and uncertainty.

The Biden administration released several reports Thursday on climate change and national security, laying out in stark terms the ways in which the warming world is beginning to pose significant challenges to stability worldwide.

The documents, issued by the departments of Homeland Security and Defense as well as the National Security Council and director of national intelligence, form the government’s most thorough assessment yet of these and other challenges, as well as how it will it will address them.

The timing of the release seems intended to give President Biden something to demonstrate that his government is acting on climate change as he prepares to attend a major United Nations climate conference in Glasgow known as COP26. In recent weeks Mr. Biden has struggled to advance his stalled climate agenda in Congress. As a result, he risks having little progress to point to in Glasgow, where the administration had hoped to re-establish United States leadership on addressing warming.

The reports “reinforce the President’s commitment to evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data,” the White House said Thursday, and “will serve as a foundation for our critical work on climate and security moving forward.”

Among the documents released was a National Intelligence Estimate, which is meant to collect and distill the views of the country’s intelligence agencies about particular threats. The report, the first such document to look exclusively at the issue of climate, said that risks to American national security will grow in the years to come. After 2030, key countries will face growing risks of instability and need for humanitarian assistance, the report said.

The document makes three key judgments. Global tensions will rise as countries argue about how to accelerate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; climate change will exacerbate cross-border flash points and amplify strategic competition in the Arctic; and the effects of climate change will be felt most acutely in developing countries that are least equipped to adapt.

The document also states that China and India, with large populations, will play key roles in determining how quickly global temperatures rise.

When it comes to the odds of countries around the world meeting the commitment made at the 2015 climate conference in Paris to keep the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the intelligence report said the odds were not good.

“Given current government policies and trends in technology development, we judge that collectively countries are unlikely to meet the Paris goals,” the report said. “High-emitting countries would have to make rapid progress toward decarbonizing their energy systems by transitioning away from fossil fuels within the next decade, whereas developing countries would need to rely on low-carbon energy sources for their economic development.”

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Firefighters battling the Alisal Fire near Goleta, Calif., this month.Credit…David Mcnew/Getty Images

The Pentagon released a report of its own, which looked at how it would incorporate climate-related threats into its planning. That report said the military would begin to spend a significant portion of its next budget on climate analysis in its national security exercises and analysis.

“The Department intends to prioritize funding DOD Components in support of exercises, war games, analyses, and studies of climate change impacts on DOD missions, operations, and global stability,” according to its report. “In coordination with allies and partners, DOD will work to prevent, mitigate, account for, and respond to defense and security risks associated with climate change.”

The department faces numerous climate risks. Its bases are vulnerable to flooding, fires, drought and rising sea levels. Flooding harmed the Navy Base Coronado during a particularly tough hurricane year, the Naval Air Station Key West was hit by severe drought several years ago and a wildfire in 2017 burned 380 acres on Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, among myriad other examples.

Beyond harming its basic infrastructure, droughts, fires and flooding can harm the Pentagon’s the performance of its aircraft, the ability to do testing activities and a host of training exercises.

The report drew praise from experts for recognizing that climate change and national defense are increasingly linked.

“This is the most extensive report DOD has ever produced on climate risk, moving to directly integrate concept of climate change as a threat multiplier into all aspects of defense strategy, planning, force posture and budget,” said Sherri Goodman, a former under secretary of defense for environmental security and now Secretary General for the International Military Council on Climate & Security.

Erin Sikorsky, who led climate and national security analysis across federal intelligence agencies until last year, cited the growing United States rivalry with China as an example of why the two issues are linked. “The Pentagon must bring a climate lens to its strategic assessment of Chinese foreign policy and behavior on the world stage,” said Ms. Sikorsky, who is now director of the Center for Climate and Security. “Otherwise it will get answers to key questions about China’s strength and strategy wrong.”

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the country’s main responder to natural disasters, said in a separate report that it is looking to future technologies and equipment that will be necessary to tackle the changing risks posed by extreme weather.

That could include investing in more energy efficient construction and electric vehicles. As the largest federal law enforcement agency, the department has a significant fleet of vehicles.

According to its strategy, the department will start making climate change a focus of its preparedness grants for state and local governments. It will also incorporate the changing science into the guidance it provides to the public and private sectors on how to manage risk, offering advice for specific communities, as well, such as low-income neighborhoods that are often surrounded by crumbling infrastructure already at risk of weather-induced damage.

And part of the strategy includes hiring more employees with scientific expertise, including in its policymaking and public outreach divisions.

“From extreme weather events to record heat, the D.H.S. work force is on the front lines of the climate emergency every day,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said in a statement on Thursday. “With the release of our new climate framework, we are building on our commitment to combat climate change by strategically leveraging relevant resources, authorities, and expertise to maximize sustainability and resilience.”

The department said climate change’s effect on the Northwest Passage, the waters between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and through the Arctic Ocean, are already apparent. With the ice melting, the area has become easier to navigate and has opened it up to competition with Russia and China.

The country is already seeing the effects of climate change on migration, with deadly and destructive hurricanes driving migrants to leave their homes in Central America and flee to the United States through Mexico. This has overwhelmed border officials at times since 2014 and particularly during the last six months.

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Honduran migrants displaced by Hurricanes Eta and Iota approached the Guatemalan border in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in January.Credit…Milo Espinoza/Getty Images

The National Security Council released its own report Thursday, looking at how climate change is already pushing people around the world to migrate, both within countries and between them. The report notes one forecast suggesting that climate change could lead to almost three percent of the populations of Latin America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa moving within their countries by 2050 — more than 143 million people.

That movement wouldn’t solely be the result of climate change, but rather the interaction of climate change with other challenges, like conflict, it said.

While the report focuses on climate migration overseas, it notes that some Americans are already moving because of the effects of climate change as well. “Even in the United States, one extreme event can result in a relatively high degree of permanent relocation of low-income populations exposed to chronic and worsening conditions over time,” the report says.

In February, Mr. Biden signed an executive order directing the National Security Council to provide options for protecting and resettling people displaced by climate change, as well as how to identify them.

In response, the report released Thursday, which was supposed to be done by August, recommends that the White House “work with Congress to create a new legal pathway for individualized humanitarian protection in the United States for individuals facing serious threats to their life because of climate change.”

The report also calls for setting up a group of staff across government agencies to coordinate American policy on climate migration.

Experts in climate migration said the report could have gone further.

Teevrat Garg, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in climate migration, welcomed the administration’s attention to the issue. But he said the report could have addressed the deeper question of what the United States and other developed countries owe to climate migrants.

“Much of the carbon emissions driving climate change have come from rich nations but the consequences are being borne disproportionately by the poor,” Dr. Garg said. As a result, wealthy countries have “an obligation to support climate refugees.”

Others were more critical. Kayly Ober, the senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, called the report disappointing — more of a review of the challenges around climate migration than a set of prescriptions for how to address it.

“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” Ms. Ober said. “I think the Biden administration hasn’t quite figured out what they want to do.”

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