By Vanessa Pinney
This interview is part of a series in which Center for Climate and Security (CCS) interns interview members of the CCS Advisory Board and other key voices in the climate and security field. Vanessa Pinney separately interviewed Sherri Goodman, the former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security and current senior member of the CCS Advisory Board, and Johan Bergenas, the Senior Director of Public Policy at Vulcan Inc., about their recent joint article “The United States Needs a Natural Security Strategy to Regain Our Global Leadership.” In the article, the authors call for a restructuring of the U.S. National Security Strategy to confront the growing threats of climate change and natural resource depletion. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
VP: What would the reprioritization of climate change and natural resource protection as major focuses of the US government look like in practice?
Sherri Goodman (SG):
It would establish many of the priorities that we see as urgent on the national and international agenda. In other words, it would focus on moving to lower carbon energy sources, it would screen projects and processes for climate considerations. It would also take into account the need to restore biodiversity, and include natural security and planetary health as a central element.
Johan Bergenas (JB):
As with all policy issues, if you want to drive change and impact you need to elevate their priority within the U.S. government and demonstrate leadership. We need to put more emphasis on environmental issues in our National Security Strategy and in other defense strategy documents. Climate change is one of them and there’s been some really great progress made. Less on natural resource competition and the geostrategic implications of natural resource degradation, including fish, timber, minerals and wildlife — these require further focus. We also need to increase the authority for relevant U.S. government agencies to do more for nature. It’s easy to complain about how the U.S. government is so big or not being efficient enough, but a key question is whether we are using it against the right issues. Considering the importance and climate and natural resource issues, we need to provide the authority to use the full force of the U.S. government on these issues if we’re going to come to terms with them. And finally we need to resource the policy and programmatic work that will be necessary to change the trajectory of these environmental issues.
VP: How will climate and natural resource protection impact the U.S.’s national security and geopolitical relations?
As we stated very clearly in the Climate Security Plan for America, by putting nature first and reconsidering climate considerations, we will restore America’s leadership — America’s global leadership — which has sadly deteriorated in recent years. Since we’ve pulled out of Paris, and many trade agreements, the US has lost its ability to lead by example with our key allies and partners. By putting nature and planetary health at the forefront, we will be able to regain that trust that is so important from our allies and partners.
The one thing that we are trying to highlight in this article is the geopolitical and national security implications of environmental issues. The implications are not so different from other issues we have grappled with over the decades, such as the threat from nuclear proliferation, superpower competition, terrorism, which drive personal and national insecurity, food security, global conflict, impact trade, etc. The point is that environmental challenges are going to permeate our entire society too and we point to some example in the piece. We know today that if we continue on the current trajectory of climate and natural resource degradation, we will face cataclysmic events. So, we need to take on climate and environmental issues with the same force as we have when confronted with other economic and national security threats.
VP: Do you think the U.S. will ultimately lead the rest of the world in green energy development and resource protection? Is this still possible?
Many countries are already moving forward without us, and the US stands to lose a competitive edge to countries like China in the green technology race if we don’t step up our game on batteries, microgrids, solar, wind, and other technologies such as hydrogen that are going to power the low carbon future, including advanced and modular nuclear reactors. So we have the capability, we have the intellectual knowhow, and the human capital resident within the United States. We just need to put it to use. We need to invest in human capital, science and technology, and innovation, which we have done periodically throughout our history. Now is a time for a Marshall plan for the planet, that includes not just green and clean energy, but also putting conservation, oceans, and climate change as core elements of our national security.
We have to if we are going to succeed. U.S. power and resources will be essential. So long as we don’t have strong political leadership on this topic, we’re not going to have game-changing behavioral change in other sections of society. We are seeing great progress by some companies and sectors in the corporate world and that is great, but we need to see more and quicker action across sectors with an environmental impact. The next four, five years of U.S. leadership is going to be critical, and it must also include corporate leadership if the U.S. will lead globally. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can reshape society to get it done, and incentivize and support other countries to do it; we’ve done it before, and humans have done this over and over again, we change our ways all the time.
VP: What do you think the odds are that the US government will choose to implement your recommended measures? How do you foresee the consequences if action isn’t taken?
The consequences if they’re not implemented are that US global leadership and US global influence continue to decline, and that our biodiversity and planetary health and our climate security continue to decline. The US has been the major global power for more than the last half century, and although we’ve moved into an era where the US is no longer the dominant global power, we have an opportunity here to regain our global leadership, and much of that depends on our being able to put planetary health and national security at the center of it. We observed in the article that biodiversity worldwide through ecosystem services accounts to well over a trillion dollars a year.
The consequences will be cataclysmic. It would be mass hunger, mass migration, mass conflict, mass economic disaster, mass financial destruction, mass everything. Sherri calls it a “threat multiplier.” At some level you have to think that the human species is rational, and at some point the consequences of what we are seeing will be so apparent or so painful that we will have to take bold and proportional action. So that’s why the narrative is so important about environmental security — environmental sustainability, ocean health, biodiversity should be the organizing principle for our species’ survival. The next few years represent a pivotal moment for climate and natural resources.
VP: Do you have any suggestions for people interested in working on these issues on the smaller scale, say in local government or the private sector?
A lot of leadership and innovation is happening at the local level today – there are companies across the country, and there are innovative public sector leaders at the state and local level in many states, from California to New York and places in-between, where a lot of innovation is occurring to provide lower carbon energy sources, and also to make our communities more resilient to rising sea levels, higher temperatures, and increased drought and wildfire. We address many of the ways — in the Climate Security Plan for America, we talk about how the federal government can lead by example, by threading climate security considerations across a whole range of actions from improving infrastructure, to improving our disaster response capabilities, to improving how we train our troops and keep them ready in the climate era.
Yah, sure! The question always comes up on these huge topics of what can you do, what can I do? It’s not rocket science. Ultimately there’s got to be a mass movement of people who commit to a circular economy, are better at recycling, and make smart, social, impact decisions when it comes to what clothes they are wearing, or what food they eat, or how they share their income with organizations helping the broader societal structure. When I was doing more traditional hard security and defense work, when I would point out to friends and family that counterfeit t-shirts and watches have been known to fund terrorist organizations, most people would be less inclined to buy them. That’s part of where we need to land here. Stop using resources or behaving in a way that is destructive ultimately to your own wellbeing. The last thing I’ll say is vote and march. Be a climate voter, and demonstrate to the world that the United States is a climate country. All the polling that I see is in favor of Americans wanting to have a president and Congress that protect the environment. So vote and march, and demonstrate that we are a climate country, and let’s get this done.
Vanessa Pinney is an intern with the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks