Climate Change: Our Greatest National Security Threat?

The climate century is upon us: the earth is warming, humans are to blame, and we must take immediate action now to prepare for climate change’s massively disruptive consequences. Indeed, both the congressionally-mandated 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA) and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports make clear that the window to take collective action to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions is shrinking. And advances in the field of climate attribution science demonstrate that climate change plays a major role in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

No longer can climate change be categorized solely as an environmental issue—it is a grave threat to national security. Indeed, it may be the threat. While there are many national security challenges facing the nation and the world, climate change is an aptly described “super wicked” problem that exacerbates and accelerates already existing threats. It is also manifestly unjust. In a cruel irony, the poorest nations of the world that contributed the least to global warming will bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts. What we, as a society, choose to do (or not do) now will define the health and welfare of future generations. Their fate is increasingly shaped by climate change’s dramatic, erratic, and catastrophic national security effects.

This article explains our current predicament and offers three reasons to hope that we may yet be able to address climate security.

We must think bigger and bolder about the national security threats posed by climate change

Beyond what we can read in the best peer-reviewed climate scientific reports, we can see firsthand climate change’s massively destabilizing effects. Consider the damage to national security infrastructure at military bases this last hurricane season, costing taxpayers billions and harming military readiness.

Consider, too, climate change’s outsized impact in the Arctic region, opening up new maritime trade routes, oil and gas extraction, and the looming potential for a heavily militarized Arctic region. And what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic: permafrost and methane emissions significantly harm the environment while causing significant sea level rise throughout the world. Ice-free Arctic summers are coming soon.

How fast is the ice melting in the Arctic? If we are honest, we don’t truly know. Past estimates of warming and ice loss in the Arctic have been widely underestimated. Indeed, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) reported that the Arctic has 3-5 degrees Celsius of warming locked in, irrespective of future greenhouse gas mitigation effort. Make no mistake: we need to be prepared for a physically transformed Artic region in our lifetime, however fast the ice melts.

White House Climate Inaction Fueled by Denialism 

Yet the current Administration has stepped backwards in the face of its own government’s best peer-reviewed science, the collective wisdom of the international scientific community, and the already-evident physical destruction wrought by climate change. Unfortunately, the United States is increasingly an international climate-outlier: it has already announced its intent to withdraw from the near universally-ratified Paris Climate Agreement (that the last administration played a leading role in negotiating) and has failed to advance a meaningful domestic climate agenda. Indeed, it has effectively stepped away from the world’s climate leadership stage and has removed all mention of climate change from both the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1991, then-President Bush assessed that climate change “respects no international boundaries” and contributes to political conflict in his 1991 National Security Strategy.  Climate change has been consistently mentioned in national security policy guidance since then.  Recently, the White House took the remarkable step of proposing the creation of a closed-door task force to determine the validity of the National Climate Assessment’s national security discussion.

But outside the executive branch — if you look closely enough — the climate landscape is shifting. If our political will can align with our scientific understanding, then a solution to the “super-wicked” climate security problem may just be possible. Consider the following three areas that provide hope in our fight against climate change.

  • The Intelligence Community and Military Strike Back

The intelligence and national security communities have begun to speak up louder and actively engage with the world’s most authoritative climate science reports in their own threat assessments.  Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a new, clear-eyed threat assessment report that highlighted climate change’s destabilizing effects. It stated that the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change will impact human security challenges, threaten public health, and lead to historic levels of human displacement.” Specifically, the ODNI report noted:

global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.  Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.

The intelligence community—composed of sober-minded, non-partisan professionals—brings enormous credibility and perspective when weighing the complex security threats facing the nation.

Further, congressional hearings on climate security continue to occur at a steady pace.  Just last week, General David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, cited the conflict in Syria as an example of how climate change’s impact is already destabilizing some nations. His remarks came two days after the commanders of U.S. European Command and U.S. Transportation Command voiced similar views before Congress.  The military has the responsibility to prepare for future threats, however defined—this includes climate change.

  • Congress Awakens

Congress, too, has slowly awoken from its climate slumber, including provisions in the yearly National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that address climate adaptation efforts within DoD. It recently required that DoD report on military installations especially vulnerable to climate change. While the details of the DoD report fell short of expectations, it signaled congressional willingness to actively engage on this issue.  Congress also addressed climate adaptation efforts, recently placing restrictions on military construction in the riskiest floodplain areas.

Earlier this week, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel (former Senators and Secretaries of State and Defense, respectively) testified in front of the House Oversight Committee on the national security implications of climate change. We should look for more action in the climate security space as Congress holds hearings on climate change’s national security impacts and looks to include provisions in the annual DoD budget bill.

Finally, the Green New Deal – though it may not be on a fast track to becoming law – does not shy away from climate change’s security implications, explicitly stating that climate change:

constitutes a direct threat to the national security of the United States . . .by impacting the economic, environmental, and social stability of countries and communities around the world and by acting as a threat multiplier.

While Congress has yet to pass comprehensive legislation that would require the United States to meet the emission reduction goals the last administration set in joining the Paris Agreement — and the Obama-era Clean Power Plan was halted by the Supreme Court — the groundwork may be in the process of being laid for such action in the national security arena.

  • Innovative Legal Solutions to Combat Climate Change

As a general matter, most of our domestic law environmental statutes suspend environmental protections for reasons of national security. For example, the Clean Air Act—the major environmental statute governing EPA regulation of carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions—authorizes the President to suspend regulation of stationary sources (such as coal-fired power plants) if it is in the “paramount interest of the United States” to do so.

But what if climate change is the underlying emergency and we needed greater authorities to decrease GHG emissions?

While there is no “break glass in case of climate emergency” statute, Congress has delegated broad powers to the President possesses in the 1976 National Emergencies Act. In the aftermath of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build a border wall, commentators have begun to speculate that future Presidents could use similar legal authorities to declare climate change a national emergency. The term “emergency” is undefined in law. Moreover, there should be little debate that as a scientific matter, climate change does present an extraordinary threat to the security of the United States. There are certain authorities that could potentially be actuated pursuant to a “climate emergency” declaration, from reducing oil drilling to restricting car emissions to investing in climate adaptation measures. While I do not argue for this approach at this time, we must begin to think innovatively about all the legal authorities available.

Internationally, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has shown a renewed willingness to discuss climate change’s multifaceted impacts on peace and security.  Under Article 39 of the UN Charter, the UNSC has special authorities to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, [or] breach of the peace.” While the UNSC has not (yet) formally declared climate change a threat to international peace and security — thereby actuating legal authorities under Chapter VI and VII — scholars have begun to assess the implications of doing so.

David Wallace-Wells, in his recent book the Uninhabitable Earth, foreshadows a world where tens of millions of climate refugees flee drought, food insecurity, and extreme weather. Yet these “climate refugees” lack legal protections, including under the 1951 Refugee Convention. How should international law account for and safeguard future refugees fleeing from the disruptive effects of climate change? And if you are a citizen of a small island developing state that may not be habitable due to climate change, what is a more pressing issue facing you?  The Security Council may yet need to step in to resolve some of these vexing questions.

Looking Ahead

Let me be clear: we need domestic climate legislation, re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement, and massive governmental investment in renewable energy technology before we actuate these innovative climate legal solutions. However, there is some good news:  we have made enormous strides in clean energy technology in recent years and climate denialism and inaction policy have helped energize the electorate. The technology is there; but the political will among our current leaders is not.

And in a twist of fate, the United States cannot formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement until November 4, 2020—one day after the next Presidential election.  Whether climate change is on the ballot as a core issue in 2020 still remains to be seen.  But the electoral landscape, too, may be changing.  Governor Inslee of Washington is seeking the Democratic nomination based upon a climate change platform and Mayor Pete Buttigeig spoke at length about the climate security challenge in his announcement for his Presidential bid on Sunday, explicitly stating “let’s pick our heads up to face what might be the great security issue of our time, climate change and disruption.”

As I have argued before, climate change cannot be wished away and we are already paying a “do nothing” climate tax on our economy and environment. Indeed, if “we are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it” we must meet the climate century head on. It’s time to get moving on climate action. If not now, when?

IMAGE: JOKULSARLON, ICELAND: Ice blocks floating in Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon by Vatnajokull National Park. Floating icebergs in blue meltwater from Breioamerkurjokull Glacier, part of Vatnajokull Glacier in South East Iceland to the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Mark Nevitt

Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and former commander in the Navy, serving as a tactical jet aviator and attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter (@marknevitt).