It is hard to be optimistic about the future of security with the crises pummeling the world today. As members of the rising generation in national security policy, we recognize that we will spend our careers dealing with many of the problems currently taking root. These are not the military risks of decades past, but growing threats posed by climate change and destruction of earth systems. Given the enormity of the growing crisis, we cannot afford to waste decades until our generation is calling the shots. Today’s leaders need to take thoughtful and immediate action against such threats today, or else they risk the entire foundation of future security.
The Biden administration signaled how seriously it intends to confront climate change when it announced early executive actions, including a slew of new measures focused on the security threats posed by climate change. From the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, to the wide-ranging intelligence and scientific communities, all are now required to forecast climate threats, integrate them into their plans, and build strategies to ensure resilience.
These new requirements are nothing to scoff at, particularly in a government that lost much of its climate change expertise in the last four years. To implement them, the sprawling national security enterprise now must get up to speed on the many ways that climate change impacts their work. This presents a unique opportunity to address the largest security threat facing our generation, before its consequences spiral further out of control. For those leaders less familiar with climate security risks, here’s where to take urgent action.
First, decision-makers must better understand the ways climate and environmental change shape the security environment. For too long, climate issues have been largely ignored by security experts, except for those few focused on global mitigation negotiations. But now it’s clear that the effects of a changing climate are impacting nearly all other foreign policy and national security issues, from opening new frontiers for great power conflict, to bolstering extremist groups in the Middle East and Central America. Experts must not waste more time debating whether warmer temperatures cause conflict, but instead better understand how second-and third-order effects of rapid change impact community fragility, instability, and extremism in all regions of the globe. And ultimately, in order to avoid the most dire security impacts of our current trajectory, the world must pursue global net-zero emissions as soon as possible.
Second, in order to confront threats posed by the changing climate, we need to address the consequences of wide scale, rapid earth-system changes. We cannot separate climate change from the myriad of other ways humans are altering global earth systems, from dwindling biodiversity to dangerous pollution levels. Effectively addressing these threats will require a more sustainable relationship with the environment, including protection of ecosystems that protect us from floods, droughts, and disease. It will also require a more holistic understanding of human security, and our reliance on a full range of environmental and social systems. For example, deforestation harms communities, exacerbates climate change, and risks diseases jumping from animals to humans, like with the current COVID-19 pandemic. These security risks are complex: they require breaking down traditional silos between the physical and social sciences, and inviting scientists to play a central role in decision-making.
Third, the sheer magnitude of these climate and earth-system risks demand a whole-of-government mobilization. The Biden administration has directed an inter-agency approach to climate security, but it will require quickly connecting experts who may have never previously interacted. For example, we need environmental scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA in regular contact with defense planners at U.S. Combatant Commands and diplomats in U.S. embassies. They should be analyzing and preparing for how ongoing climate change is likely to impact their strategies together. Importantly, minimizing climate risks should be led by U.S. diplomatic and development experts working with communities on the ground, not by the military. Our defense forces are already overburdened by the tasks thrust upon them, and are not properly equipped to solely address the root causes of conflict aggravated by climate change.
A government-wide effort will also require retooling and retraining across the national security community. Security experts cannot be expected to understand the complexity of climate impacts on their portfolios if they have never studied or considered these challenges previously. Fortunately, young leaders across disciplines are already equipping themselves to address these problems. The administration should mirror this for its current staff, by piloting training courses on climate topics, conducting briefings for senior leadership, and identifying ways to elevate experts in their ranks.
The window to avoid potentially catastrophic security threats is closing rapidly. The world is already experiencing the harsh security impacts of global environmental change, and these threats will only grow worse without action. Today’s decision-makers need to move quickly to chart a different future in the face of these existential threats. If not, the rising generation of security leaders will be left to wade through even more chaos than we see in the world today, and we’ll know exactly where to point the blame.
All views expressed are those of the authors personally and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, US Government, or other institutions mentioned.