A Climate Security Plan for America Part 2: Assess Climate Risks

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By Erin Sikorsky

Part 2 of 4 in the Climate Security Plan for America blog series

See part 1, “Demonstrate Leadership,” here.

If the first pillar of the Climate Security Plan for America is all about leadership, the second pillar is about ensuring those leaders have the information they need to take decisive, effective action. In this section of the plan, we note that though climate change poses unprecedented risks, we’re also in a moment of unprecedented foresight – a combination that gives us a Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent. Advanced climate modeling allows us to project the implications of a range of emissions levels on risks such as sea level rise, rainfall variability, wildfires, impacts on biodiversity and marine and terrestrial ecosystems and functions, and new disease ranges. 

Foresight does not automatically translate to action, however. In order to leverage these models for national security insights, the U.S. government must have the personnel, programs, and systems in place to conduct robust and actionable assessments of climate risks. Our plan calls on the administration to “take advantage of unprecedented foresight about climate change.” President Biden’s new Executive Order (EO), Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, takes important steps in this direction–his actions and our recommendations for what should come next are below: 

  • Prioritize Intelligence Assessments on Climate Security: The EO fulfills President Biden’s campaign pledge to task a National Intelligence Estimate on the economic and security impacts from climate change. Such a report should build on previous climate warnings, including the ODNI’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment and the 2016 NIC climate report, and its findings should shape regional threat analysis as well. Further, the establishment of an interagency Climate Security Crisis Watch Center would strengthen the intelligence community’s ability to rapidly analyze and warn of key climate threats, and serve as a central resource for the national security apparatus. 
  • Comprehensively Assess the Vulnerabilities of Critical Infrastructure: The EO instructs all agencies that engage in extensive international work to conduct assessments of climate-impacts on infrastructure. It is also a good sign that President Biden’s picks for key White House positions including his Homeland Security Advisor and NSC Senior Director for Resilience and Response have strong backgrounds in this area. 
  • Expand Efforts to Assess Risks that Climate Change Poses to the U.S. Military Mission: Climate change already affects the regions in which U.S. troops operate abroad, and impacts such as extreme weather, extreme temperatures, and sea level rise will only become more challenging in years ahead. The Biden EO reflects this recommendation, requiring the Pentagon to conduct an analysis–in partnership with US federal scientific agencies and the Director of National Intelligence– of the security implications of climate change (Climate Risk Analysis) that can be incorporated into modeling, simulation, war-gaming, and other analyses. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signaled his support for this effort in a press statement, saying, “We know first-hand the risk that climate change poses to national security because it affects the work we do every day.”
  • Call for a Climate Security Crisis Watch Center at the United Nations (UN): U.S. action on climate change at the UN must extend beyond emissions reductions, which are necessary but insufficient to meet the climate security threat. The Biden Administration should take advantage of the growing appetite at the UN for climate security action to advance such a center, and integrate its warnings into conflict and crisis prevention planning across the UN, as recommended in our Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent framework.
  • Initiate a Climate Security Research Agenda: The Biden campaign plan called for historic investments in climate research, primarily aimed at clean energy, and this week he reestablished the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which could be positioned to  These investments should extend to research into the climate-security nexus, and the Administration should establish a formal Security-to-Science mechanism for the security community to provide regular input to the Federal science agencies regarding climate change research topics that will support security requirements. The aforementioned National Academies workshop is a step in the right direction that the Biden team can build on.

Clearly, President Biden is off to a strong start toward meeting these recommendations with his proposed actions–the harder part will of course be implementing and institutionalizing these proposals across the government. As the administration progresses, it must ensure climate security assessments are developed continuously and routinely, due to the dynamic nature of climate change risks and the ever-increasing availability of more robust relevant data. Assessments must be action-oriented, widely shared across the U.S. government, and made available to key domestic and international partners to ensure efforts are connected and aligned. This hard work will pay dividends–a robust assessment plan will ensure U.S. leaders have the information they need to truly combat the security threats posed by climate change.


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