The first month of the Biden presidency was a flurry of climate action, sweeping away the openly denialist intransigence of the Trump administration.
After re-entering the Paris Agreement and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline on Day 1, President Biden swiftly rolled out an array of climate-related executive orders calling on all agencies to factor climate into their work. Top among them was an order to “center the climate crisis in U.S. foreign policy and national security."
As part of this order, officials from across more than a dozen intelligence agencies, including the CIA, will produce a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) over the next four months on the national and economic security impacts of climate change, a high level of analysis for topics designated as significant threats to the United States. This process could unlock vast resources from across agencies if serious risks are identified.
Climate change is, in any meaningful sense of the term, a security issue. Look no further than Texas, where power failures are currently roiling the state amid a major cold snap, leaving millions without heat and electricity in freezing weather.
Still, the idea that climate change should be taken seriously as a foreign policy or “national security” issue is relatively new to the U.S. mainstream.
As recently as 2015, the political media treated then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as faintly ridiculous for claiming climate change was the greatest threat to national security. But after four years of fossil-fueled backsliding under Trump and dramatic shifts in public perceptions of alarm about climate impacts, framing climate as a central threat is now common political wisdom.
Climate change will impact every aspect of society, so it’s long overdue to factor the crisis into all aspects of government policy. But it’s important to ask on what terms the climate crisis is being integrated into the mission of different agencies.
Most fundamentally, what kind of “security” is most useful against the climate crisis: mutual security, which promotes cooperation against a common planetary threat? Or a fortress mentality that defines others as threats, to be dominated or even eliminated?
Without a clear humanitarian framework for how the climate crisis should reshape foreign policy, framing it narrowly in terms of "national security" risks reinforcing America's militarized approach to the rest of the world. This raises the risk of more war and instability when it’s most urgent to build the cooperation and international solidarity that is necessary to green the global economy for collective survival.
A Dire Vision
So what kinds of conclusions might the NIE actually find? A large body of literature from the U.S. security establishment offers unsettling hints.
Pentagon planners were presenting the climate crisis as a national security threat as early as 2003. But rather than emphasizing the need to accelerate a green transition, their reports are often resigned to an “armed lifeboat” approach to an inevitably overheating planet. They call for reinforcing military bases, preparing for war, locking down the border, and even using counterinsurgency tactics against civilians to contain societal unrest.
Recent reports have been getting more specific about the vast array of new militarized resources desired, and the circumstances in which they might be used.
A 2019 analysis by the Army War College warns that the U.S. military is “precariously underprepared” for the intensifying climate crisis, laying out possible future sites of global conflict and a new era of endless war. Naturally, the proposed solutions amount to increased funding for combat preparedness in a diverse array of scenarios.
The report also raises the possibility of expanded domestic military operations inside the U.S. to deal with climate-related emergencies like pandemics, food shortages, and even energy grid blackouts — a scenario much like what we’re seeing in Texas. In the absence of robust civilian public services to respond to such crises, the governor is deploying National Guard troops.
Projecting from the Syrian civil war, where political tensions were inflamed by a major drought, the analysts highlight Bangladesh as a worst-case scenario for further Syria-style conflict and possible U.S. military intervention. More than 160 million Bangladeshis, most of whom live near sea level, are highly vulnerable to climate impacts and displacement.
The report suggests the U.S. Army provide military training to Bangladesh, an already highly militarized government prosecuting a brutal drug war amid extreme inequality. The analysts further note that over 600 million people live at sea level globally, implying many more regions that might invite military intervention, especially where U.S. military bases already exist.
Another scenario lays out the prospect of militarizing the Arctic amid rapidly melting polar ice caps, ostensibly to ward off a newly expansionist Russia — a longstanding obsession of “war gamers” anxious that Russia is poised to “win” the climate crisis. The American Security Project, a think tank whose board includes Biden’s new “climate envoy” John Kerry, names the security challenge of a melting Arctic among its top three priorities for the Biden administration, emphasizing the need to show allies that “the U.S. means business in the Arctic.”
This may turn out to have an ominous double meaning. The 2019 Army War College report notes that the Arctic likely holds a quarter of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves. That raises the perverse possibility that “[defending] economic interests” in the region would amount to securing more fossil fuel resources to burn for profit — which would have the obvious effect of further accelerating climate crisis and social chaos.
Longer-term analyses to this effect become highly dystopian. A video used at the Joint Special Operations University warns that the world’s biggest cities — like Lagos, Nigeria, or Dhaka, Bangladesh — will “unavoidably” become breeding grounds for “hybrid threats” for which the U.S. must prepare. It suggests expansive new preparations for counterinsurgency and urban warfare against civilian populations in dense megacities.
A Reality Check
We need an urgent reality check on the presumptions baked into these dire visions.
Why should preparing for military intervention be the foregone conclusion? Why not emphasize the need for preempting conflict by building green infrastructure that could mitigate the impacts of climate change? Why not invest instead in climate diplomacy and a global humanitarian response? And why not exercise greater civilian control over military resources, instead of always expecting troops to intervene in crises they’re ill-equipped to handle?
Let’s start with where we’re putting our resources.
Against a societal crisis that requires fundamental transformation of our economic system, the last thing we need is an excuse for stuffing more money into an already bloated Pentagon budget — which already consumes over half of U.S. discretionary spending.
For one thing, the Pentagon has repeatedly failed comprehensive audits and meets no reasonable standard of fiscal responsibility. Last year, the Pentagon diverted $1 billion in COVID-19 relief money that was supposed to fund protective equipment to weapons manufacturers for jet parts.
Moreover, the U.S. military itself is a massive greenhouse gas polluter. The U.S. has over 800 overseas military bases, many of which are increasingly at risk from climate change. Massive resources will be proposed to upgrade them, but these bases are already overextended, expensive to maintain, and ecologically disastrous. Worse still, they’re often used to secure the very oil resources that are destabilizing the climate.
Instead of devoting ever more public funds, it makes sense to start planning to close many of these bases. Even if the U.S. closed 60 percent of all its overseas bases, it would still have over 300 left. (Russia, by contrast, has only about 21.)
“Greening the military” can only go so far without dealing with the underlying drivers of militarism. Rather than pinning political hopes on situating the Pentagon as a “key player in the war on climate change,” forward-thinking politicians would do better to push aggressively for major public sector domestic investments that address root causes of climate crisis in ways aligned with a Green New Deal, which the public can appreciate and directly benefit from.
We have the resources — we’re just misappropriating them.
The War on Terror has already cost the U.S. government $6.4 trillion over the two decades since 9/11 and is widely regarded as a catastrophe. In comparison, it would cost an estimated $4.5 trillion to shift the entire U.S. electricity grid to 100 percent renewable energy over the next 10 years. Which would make us safer?
The next step would be to develop a much stronger global capacity for humanitarian support and climate diplomacy.
Long before Trump, the United States’ main role in global climate talks has been what my colleague Basav Sen calls “obstructionist-in-chief.” U.S. negotiators have watered down commitments to reduce emissions and refused to accept responsibility for the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from over a century’s worth of fossil-fueled industrialization.
That shirked responsibility also comes from the disproportionate wealth that nations like the U.S. possess, which was largely extracted through colonialism from the Global South societies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia that are least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate chaos. If Global South nations are compelled to develop along the fossil-fueled path of integration into the current global economic order, without aid to build green projects that allow them to pursue an alternate path, the future is bleak.
That’s why wealthier nations need to help fund green energy in poorer countries.
Under President Obama, the U.S. committed $3 billion to the global Green Climate Fund (GCF), created by the UN to help poor countries cope with climate impacts and build green infrastructure. Under Trump, the U.S. reneged on that minimal pledge and withdrew support for the fund.
Restoring that Obama-era commitment is the lowest bar for the Biden administration. A real step forward would be to fulfill U.S. climate campaigners’ calls to raise global climate funding to $8 billion, bringing the U.S. in line with other donor countries that have doubled their contributions in recent years.
That would only be the first step. A truly fair share of global climate finance from the United States, based on the current U.S. share of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) GDP, would ultimately approach $680 billion — still less than the entire U.S. military budget, $740 billion this year.
Such a massive redistribution of wealth would help societies around the world adapt, and perhaps even thrive, through the climate crisis. But much damage is already done, and many people will need to leave their homes.
More than 140 million people may be displaced by climate impacts in the coming decades, many of them from regions already ravaged by U.S.-backed military interventions, economic sanctions, and destabilizing trade practices. These migrations of displaced people are often seen as an inherent threat to “national security” in the U.S., leading to further militarization and border fortification that threaten any possibility of migrant justice.
To repair so much past, present, and future harm requires a fundamental shift away from a framework of militarism and securitization, and toward a reparatory approach to the climate crisis. This must include a commitment to granting internationally displaced people greater rights to movement and resettlement.
Since 1980, the U.S. granted an average ceiling of over 95,000 annual refugee admissions until Trump, who set caps on refugee resettlement at historic lows each successive year of his presidency, leading to a nadir of only 15,000 refugees to be admitted for FY 2021. As a candidate, Biden committed to restoring the cap to 125,000 refugees, more than Obama’s highest admissions target of 110,000 in 2017.
That’s a good start. Even higher numbers are well within the historical range — President Ronald Reagan’s highest ceiling was 140,000 refugees. With enough administrative support, this country can commit to resettling many more refugees to meet urgent global needs.
A Fundamental Reorientation
Centering the climate crisis across all foreign policy and “security” considerations is a major step forward for the world’s obstructionist-in-chief — and certainly an improvement from Trump. But the devil is in the details.
Basing our climate policy on domination abroad and closed borders at home would be a disaster. It would secure resources for only a wealthy few, leaving everyone else to scramble for crumbs in an increasingly conflict-ridden, warming world. That route would further empower the forces of fossil-fueled fascism lurking behind Trump, and lead to even darker routes ahead.
The key is investing in mutual security, not an “armed lifeboat” to nowhere. From a Green New Deal to climate diplomacy and refugee settlement, there are all kinds of meaningful steps the Biden administration can take towards ensuring our climate policy actually keeps people safe.
In the long run, achieving a world beyond climate emergency requires a fundamental reorientation of the United States toward global cooperation, respect for international law, and human rights for all.
This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.