Climate Change as a National Security and Foreign Policy Priority: Opportunities and Challenges for the Next Administration

Addressing climate change is a central pillar of President-Elect Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. Signaling his commitment to the issue, Biden named former Secretary of State John Kerry to be the first-ever special presidential envoy for climate. The president-elect has also pledged to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on day one of his administration. Doing so will be an important first step toward strengthening U.S. leadership on climate change, especially after the lack of international cooperation during the Trump administration. But it must be accompanied by sustained and systematic engagement on a range of issues that extend beyond the environmental dimensions of lowering carbon emissions, improving air quality, replenishing forests, and protecting oceans.

Scholars, policymakers, and activists are increasingly interested in understanding and addressing the second-order, or knock-on, effects of climate change as they relate to peace, security and development. The implications of climate change for U.S. national security and foreign policy are multifold. Here, I focus on three key areas: conflict, poverty, and cooperation.

The Biden-Harris administration should integrate a nuanced and intersectional understanding of how climate change interacts with insecurity, inequality, and instability into international adaptation and mitigation approaches in order to anticipate national security risks and craft foreign policy effectively. With that in mind, I offer policy recommendations to enhance the Biden-Harris administration’s ability to play a constructive role in addressing climate change as part of the United States’ defense, diplomatic, and development agendas.

Conflict Prevention and Post-Conflict Transformation

The causal relationship between anthropogenic climate change and violent conflict is far from unidirectional or linear but, rather, complex and contextually variant. Still, while prolonged, cross-national and cross-regional analysis remains limited, notable patterns are emerging – for example, how rainfall patterns shape pastoralist conflicts in Nigeria and Chad; how desertification and changes to crop yields in Guatemala lead to loss of livelihood, which in turn contributes to organized crime, illicit trafficking, and large-scale migration northward; or how rising temperatures and lengthy heat waves will make parts of the Middle East and the Sahel uninhabitable. Insights from these and other cases have contributed to the framing of climate change as a “threat multiplier,” especially in already fragile and weak States. Nonetheless, the effects of climate change on the outbreak and resolution of conflicts as well as the effects of conflicts on climate change adaptation and mitigation remain understudied.

That climate change may create new or exacerbate existing risks to U.S. national security interests is hardly a new proposition. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review placed unprecedented emphasis on the relevance of climate change to national security. The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment also underscored the vulnerability of U.S. military assets and operations to changing climatic conditions and the indirect consequences of climate-related instability abroad on American interests, despite the Trump administration’s skepticism toward climate change. However, what has been missing and is critically needed are clearly defined strategies with goals and benchmarks for how to integrate a focus on climate change into conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict transformation processes in which the United States engages based on nuanced, context-specific information.

A better understanding of the complex interactions between climate change, instability, and conflict escalation in different regions of the world can help inform how and in what ways climate change is addressed as a U.S. national security priority. This calls for much more long-term, in-depth, comparative peer-reviewed scholarship. The Biden-Harris administration should therefore prioritize investments in social science research – alongside the physical sciences – as part of its commitment to tackling climate change in order to ensure that policies and programs are evidence-based and targeted. The Biden-Harris administration should also engage with specialized international institutions that are already working on these issues such as the U.N. Climate Security Mechanism, which was created in 2018 to streamline efforts around climate change, peacebuilding, and sustainable development.

Poverty Reduction and Human Development

Adopting a holistic approach to addressing climate change as a U.S. national security and foreign policy priority will require a dedicated focus on reducing socioeconomic inequalities that threaten human development and increasing social resilience to environmental shocks. That climate change augments and intensifies extreme weather events like floods, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts is widely acknowledged. In their immediate effect, such disasters cause mass displacement and cost lives and livelihoods. In the long term, climate change induced catastrophic – and recurring – extreme weather events undermine the progress that has been made towards eradicating extreme poverty and they exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities. For example, research suggests that the spread of infectious diseases – especially those that travel via vector insects or are waterborne – is sensitive to climatic conditions, although the mechanisms that link climate change and disease vary spatially and temporally. Considering this, there are particular diseases, like malaria, that warrant close consideration through the lens of climate change, not least because the United States has made significant past investments in eradicating communicable diseases and improving global health outcomes as part of its bilateral and multilateral foreign development assistance.

The indirect, interactional, and conditional effects of climate change on poverty can also heighten unequal gender relations. For example, stressors associated with climate change have been shown to aggravate gender-based violence as well as place unique or disproportionate burdens on women, especially in rural communities. The gendered dimensions of climate change impacts on human development are likely to be of special interest for Biden, who pioneered U.S. legislation on violence against women, and Kamala Harris, who broke racial and gender barriers to be elected vice president. The Biden-Harris leadership team is thus uniquely positioned to foster an intersectional approach to tackle challenges and seize opportunities at the climate-gender nexus as part of the United States’ international aid initiatives. 

Multilateralism and International Cooperation

By its very nature, climate change is a borderless problem – achieving meaningful progress globally will require the United States to work together with allies and adversaries alike. For example, the European Union’s carbon border adjustment mechanism, set to go into effect in 2023, has important trade and tariff implications for the United States with which the next administration will need to contend through diplomatic outreach. Abandoning the Trump administration’s isolationist posture, the Biden-Harris administration should work with the EU, Japan, and other OECD countries to meet climate financing goals. Furthermore, the United States should bolster international public-private partnerships to innovate practicable solutions and also incentivize the mobilization of private capital towards environmentally sustainable investments, especially in emerging markets. Despite strained trade relations and concerns over intellectual property violations, finding common ground with Beijing will also be crucial to the United States’ success as China is the world’s lead manufacturer of low-carbon energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and rechargeable batteries. Building a coalition of countries – both big and small – with whom Washington can engage diplomatically in earnest is one of the most important ways to restore the international reputation of the United States and enable a cooperative – not conflictual – approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The latest scientific analysis suggests that, consistent with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, a rise in global temperatures could be held to 2.1 degrees celsius if the Biden-Harris administration implements its pledges and if countries worldwide match optimism with concerted action. As the Biden-Harris administration strategizes its diplomatic outreach on climate change, particular attention should be paid to those countries that are already making dramatic shifts in how they govern because of climate change or facing urgent humanitarian challenges that intersect with climate change. For example, the government of Indonesia is in the process of relocating the nation’s capital from low-lying Jakarta, home to some 10 million people, to the island of Borneo. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is grappling with the massive influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into the coastal region of Cox’s Bazar, which today hosts the largest refugee settlement in the world and is extremely susceptible to climate change as a result of rising sea levels, soil erosion, and deforestation. These countries are among U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region – which is likely to be a central focus of the Biden-Harris administration – and cooperation on climate change-related issues could be strategically important for other geopolitical security and economic priorities in the future.

Conclusion

A proactive, sustained, high-level commitment to addressing climate change globally is long overdue in the U.S. government. To transform U.S. leadership on climate change domestically and internationally, aside from accelerating efforts to dramatically reduce the United States’ carbon footprint, integrating a robust and systematic focus on climate change throughout the national security and foreign policy infrastructure holds enormous potential for maximizing defense, development, and diplomacy outcomes. Still, mitigation measures may not always have desired impacts and beyond being ineffective, some policy interventions may be counter-productive by worsening existing problems or creating new ones. It is impossible to anticipate all the knock-on effects of climate change as it relates to U.S. national security and foreign policy. Nevertheless, iteration, evaluation, and learning from both successes and failures will be essential, especially as implementing agencies navigate uncharted territories.

Image: Former US Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende tour Ny-Alesund Village, the northernmost civilian settlement in the world, before visiting Blomstrand Glacier, on June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. Photo: EVAN VUCCI/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Mayesha Alam

Mayesha Alam is a doctoral candidate in political science at Yale University and research and advocacy fellow at Yale Law School’s Global Health Justice Partnership.