Integrating Climate Change into National Security Planning

Earlier this month, we accompanied President Obama to the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. It was a productive summit across the board. But perhaps the most significant moment came when President Obama and President Xi stood together and formally joined the landmark Paris Agreement, committing the two nations responsible for roughly 40 percent of global carbon emissions to take serious and sustained action to combat climate change.  

For all the challenges and threats we face as a nation—from terrorist groups like ISIL and al Qaeda to increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks, from diseases like Ebola and Zika to Russian aggression in Ukraine—no threat is more terrifying in its global reach or more potentially destructive and destabilizing than climate change. The Department of Defense calls it a “threat multiplier.” The Department of Homeland Security considers it a major homeland security risk.  As President Obama said in China, “the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge.”

That’s why, today, President Obama took another major step to address the threat of climate change by signing a Presidential Memorandum requiring the federal government to fully consider the impacts of climate change in the development and implementation of all national security policies and plans. First, the President’s memorandum directs 20 agencies from across the government to establish a dedicated working group to identify the U.S. national security priorities related to climate change. Second, it instructs these agencies to develop a Climate Change and National Security Action Plan outlining how they’ll develop and share information on these risks. Third, it directs each agency to develop strategies to address climate-related threats, from impacts on our economy to our food security to the flow of migrants and refugees. The system this memorandum puts into place will ensure that data and insights from climate science become a meaningful component of national security policymaking.  

The President’s memorandum is supported by a National Intelligence Council report, also released today, which finds that climate change is already having significant impacts—and that these are “likely to pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades,” including straining our military operations and bases.  

Already, we’ve witnessed the instability and harm caused by rising sea levels, dramatic flooding, regional droughts, extreme heat, and severe weather events in many parts of the world. A devastating drought contributed to the early unrest and eventual conflict in Syria, as water shortages and crop failures led farmers to abandon their homes in search of more stable sources of food and water. More than 100 million people now live less than one meter above sea level, and the expected pace of sea level rise means that these people will be at increasing risk during this century. In the Arctic, melting sea ice is increasing the potential for international tension as competition for the region’s vast natural resources grows. That’s why the Administration proposed in 2015 to accelerate the acquisition of a replacement heavy icebreaker for the Arctic and began planning for the construction of additional icebreakers. And this year, the Administration requested $150 million from Congress to accelerate production of a new Polar Icebreaker, and the Administration continues to call on Congress to provide this critical funding to the U.S. Coast Guard this year. 

The report found that, around the world, climate change will only continue to threaten the stability of countries, heighten social and political tensions, increase health risks, jeopardize food security, and negatively impact economic growth. These effects will be especially pronounced as populations continue to concentrate in coastal areas, drought-prone regions, and other vulnerable areas. 

Given the scale of this threat, it’s imperative that policymakers have clear and accurate information and assessments to weigh how the impacts of climate change will affect our national security. Just as we work to defeat any adversary before they have the ability to attack, we must similarly prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The security of our nation—and the well-being of our world—depends on it.