Climate Security on Day One

By John Conger

It’s a frequent question that presidential candidates are asked: What would you do on Day One of your Presidency?  Aside from the fact that there’s only so much you can practically get accomplished before you have your staff in place and operations running, a four-year term rapidly becomes a short period of time.  Congress often moves slowly and Federal budget processes are not designed for agility.  For example, the first budget a new president gets to write would be the one they submit 13 months into their term, which only affects spending close to two years into their term.  It can be frustrating, but it also illustrates why it’s absolutely necessary to have an idea of what you want to accomplish from the outset.

So it was no surprise that during recent Senate testimony on the implications of climate change on national security that the question came up. During the questioning (45:00), Senator Duckworth asked me what a new Administration should do to address climate security on Day One. 

During the hearing, I submitted the Climate Security Plan for America as my official testimony.  This document, published by the Climate Security Advisory Group – a group of senior security and military experts (including eight retired four-star generals and admirals) chaired by the Center for Climate and Security – included dozens of recommendations for the Administration to prepare for and prevent future climate change.  It was deliberately non-partisan, oriented towards what actions we deemed commensurate to the risks, and designed to be useful to any President – future or present.  Some of its recommendations were complex, and would require the kinds of budget actions that, as noted above, take time to mature.

On Day One, however, there are two clear actions that we recommended. 

For the President, Day One is about symbolism; it’s about setting the tone and signaling intent; and it’s about sending a message. On Day One, if you want to send a message internationally, you rejoin the Paris Agreement.  As we stated in the Climate Security Plan for America:

“Even without considering the long-term security implications of climate change and the importance of addressing the prospect of future catastrophe by taking action proactively, there has been a price paid for announcing the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.  It has exacted a cost in stature and leadership, posturing the U.S. as something of a rogue nation on the world stage, and for no gain – not least as all Paris commitments are voluntary.

While the U.S. should certainly reverse its posture and embrace the global effort to head off the climate crisis, from a security perspective, it should at least announce the U.S. intention to remain in the agreement and to resume its seat at the table.  This would allow the U.S. to help shape the global response to climate change, and to reestablish its leadership role on the world stage, particularly with allies, partners and prospective partners for whom climate change and the energy transition are vital and, in some cases, existential issues.”

Second, on Day One, the President should send the message that climate change is a security issue that should be prioritized within the Administration.  The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated very clearly that we must prepare our nation for catastrophic threats.  Climate change and its security implications clearly fall into the same category.

To do this, the President should, on Day One, announce a whole-of-government “Climate Security Plan for America” to drive efforts on climate security throughout the term.  This plan should be a robust one focusing on 4 pillars of action: Demonstrating Leadership; Assessing Climate Risks; Supporting Allies and Partners; and Preparing for & Preventing Climate Impacts.

  • Demonstrating Leadership. The Climate Security Plan for America should include the creation of a new White House Office on Climate Security, whose Director would be the one assigned the responsibility of developing the details of a Climate Security Plan for America consisting of the following top-line elements.
  • Assessing Climate Risks. It is imperative that the President be working with a current, accurate understanding of the risk climate change poses to our security. The Plan should therefore include the creation of an interagency Climate Security Crisis Watch Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): A Climate Security Crisis Watch Center, led by a new Senior Director for Climate Security in ODNI, would facilitate an annual, stand-alone, in-depth interagency assessment of global security risks related to climate change, effectively making permanent the mandate of the short-term Climate Security Advisory Council created under the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
  • Supporting Allies and Partners. Establishing Regional Climate Security Plans: Under the leadership of the National Security Advisor, drafting unified interagency plans that support U.S. national security, foreign policy and development strategies in critical regions of the world to bolster climate resilience and clean energy transitions in key countries, prevent climate stress from destabilizing fragile states, expand U.S. alliances and partnerships, and compete with great powers.
  • Preparing For and Preventing Climate Impacts. Advancing a major Climate Security Infrastructure Initiative and Climate Security Prevention Policy: Developing a Climate Security Infrastructure Initiative in hopes of improving the climate resilience of our critical civilian and military infrastructure, and an economy-wide Climate Security Prevention Policy, focused both in the U.S. and globally, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a scale necessary for both avoiding catastrophic security consequences and bolstering economic development.

Climate change is a known risk, just like the pandemic was, and with a focused effort by the administration we can ensure our security enterprise is prepared for its impacts.

We know the impacts of climate change go well beyond national security, and there may be other climate initiatives that will be considered for Day One, but this is a non-partisan space that should be specifically prioritized within the discussion.  Climate change is more than an environmental issue – it is a security issue, a health issue, and an economic issue.  It needs to be treated as such.  On Day One.

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis


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