John Kerry has been nominated to be the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate by President-elect Biden. Kerry is a founding board member of the American Security Project, and was the co-founder of ASP’s affiliated organization, World War Zero.
Kerry’s role as Presidential Envoy will elevate climate change to the national security threat that the American military and intelligence community have identified it as. Dating back three decades, there is a remarkable bipartisan agreement among American national security leaders that climate change poses a threat to national security. In Defense planning documents, it is referred to as an “accelerant of instability” and a “threat multiplier” that will “affect the operating environment.”
The American Security Project, dating back to our founding in 2005, has been a leading organization detailing the threats posed by climate change. ASP is a non-partisan organization, and our focus on climate is simply a matter of following the facts. Like many of its other policies, on this the Trump Administration was an outlier, banishing all mentions of “climate change” from formal documents like the National Defense Strategy and the National Security Strategy. However, when questioned, Trump’s Defense Secretaries and Intelligence Directors would all agree that climate change posed a threat. Even more telling, the non-political uniformed military became clearly aware of the threats posed by a changing climate.
And now, with Secretary Kerry slated to return to government, the impacts of climate change on security should finally get a seat at the table. Literally: John Kerry will hold a seat on the National Security Council, the President’s principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters. And he won’t be the only one there with this understanding. As a candidate, President-elect Biden committed to making climate change “a core national security priority.” Likewise, Michèle Flournoy, widely seen as a leading candidate for Secretary of Defense, wrote how the Pentagon should be a “Key player in war on climate change,” and other potential cabinet officials, like Janet Yellen, have also called for accelerated action on climate change.
Building a Climate Security Agenda Beyond Paris
Even with this high-profile understanding that climate change is a threat, it is important that the focus of the U.S. foreign policy and national security community does not solely look to UN climate negotiations and returning to the Paris Climate Agreement as the sum-total of their climate activity. In his speech after his nomination, Kerry said that “The world must go beyond Paris” in addressing climate change. To begin to deal with the national security challenges of climate change must be a top priority. Too often, even among climate champions, the issue gets pushed off the government’s agenda as an issue that is important, but not urgent in the crisis-driven mode of national security planning.
Three urgent and important issues that the National Security Council should take up immediately after the new Biden Administration takes office to begin to reduce the threats that climate change poses to security are: (1) military base resilience, (2) reorienting foreign aid and military assistance to support climate security, and (3) preparing for the security challenge of a melting Arctic.
1. Military Base Resilience
Climate change threatens the ability of the military to project force into strategically important areas of the world. Sea level rise and extreme weather threaten the viability of coastal installations like Naval Base Norfolk, the home the newly reconstituted U.S. 2nd Fleet and the NATO Joint Force Command Norfolk, both recently activated because of the perceived threat from Russian military activity in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Norfolk is both the world’s largest naval base and probably the one most vulnerable to sea level rise, as the land sinks while the seas rise. But it goes beyond Norfolk and naval bases, as the military has over 40 bases as threatened by climate change.
This is not just a problem of the future. In 2019, extreme weather events, supercharged by climate change, caused over $10 billion in damages to military bases in North Carolina, Florida, and Nebraska. The Marines and Air Force were forced to pay for repairs out of their budgets, and readiness was impacted by extreme weather, with the Commandant of the Marine Corps writing an extraordinary letter saying “The combat readiness of Marine Expeditionary Force – 1/3 the combat power of the Marine Corps – is degraded and will continue to degrade” because of the impacts of Hurricane Florence. ASP’s website, MilitaryBaseResilience.org, details the major threats to U.S. installations. The military has begun the process of listing the bases most threatened by climate change – as directed by Congress – and should get to work prioritizing the measures that can protect readiness.
2. Reorienting Military and Foreign Aid to Address Climate Change
Second, climate change provides our global adversaries with a powerful new tool for competition with the U.S. Increasingly, climate and energy assistance are used as a new tool of influence by America’s Great Power Competitors, particularly China. As counties in strategically important regions – like South America, the Pacific and West Africa – struggle to address climate change, the Chinese government offers them comprehensive climate and energy development packages, while they see U.S. focusing primarily on military cooperation and pulling out of the Paris Agreement. In the coming years, climate action will be an increasingly important tool of soft power – one where the U.S. was seen to be absent.
Perhaps the most visible area is in the islands of the South Pacific: home to some of the most vulnerable countries with the very existence of places like the Marshall Islands or Vanuatu at risk. It is also strategically important in the contest between the U.S. and China, as Chinese leaders have extended their “Belt and Road” network into what they call the “second island chain”, showering cash to build seawalls, ports, and clean energy – all while turning a blind-eye to corruption. Chinese influence, lubricated by climate aid, could extend the current challenges of the South China Sea well into the Pacific. The U.S. should use the new tools of the Development Finance Corporation to direct climate and energy aid to countries that are both threatened by climate change and strategically important.
3. Preparing American Security for an Open Arctic
Finally, the Arctic: the fastest warming area of the world. Russia is militarizing its Arctic, while the U.S. ignores investment into the region. NATO faces a severe military challenge in the European Arctic area of operation, while Alaska faces growing security challenges from extreme weather, sea level rise, and growing. The region needs a concerted diplomatic, security, and economic push from the U.S. government – but not one that upends the existing order. With Russia set to take over the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May, there is no time to waste in preparing for an opening Arctic.
The NSC should coordinate a diplomatic offensive with Arctic nations to actively acknowledge and discuss the security implications of climate change in the Arctic to show allies and partners that the U.S. means business in the Arctic. In partnership, the U.S. military should actively participate in Arctic joint exercises, and publicize US military deployments to the region, with particular focus on the Russian border – perhaps by returning the U.S. Marine deployment to Norway. The ultimate goal would be to build confidence between NATO and Russia so that the Arctic does not slide into a zone of conflict as the ice melts.
Conclusion: John Kerry Could Begin to Fight the Climate Security Battle
In the vast system of the U.S. government, momentum can be difficult to undo. The most important way to counter that is with leadership: personnel is policy. John Kerry, with this new role as Presidential Climate Envoy, could turn the ship of state to directly address the national security challenge of climate change. His experience with the American Security Project has given him direct understanding of the complex national security challenges that climate change poses. By placing this role in the NSC, the Administration will support coordination between the Intelligence Community, the State Department, and the Defense Department on addressing the challenge, and these agencies will respond to demand from the NSC by investing in their own expertise on these issues.
Ultimately, there are no security solutions in a world that sees unchecked global warming. U.S. domestic climate action, in concert with a global diplomatic push to increase ambition in the Paris Agreement is critical. Clean technology development and deployment will determine whether we are successful in this battle. A world of 4 degrees of warming is a world of drastically changed food supplies, sea levels, and water availability. Such a world would be beyond the capability of global military forces to secure. For those reasons, the American Security Project is pleased that its founding board member, John Kerry, will be in the White House to lead the fight against climate change.