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National security and the climate frontlines

ASSOCIATED PRESS/ Delanie Stafford

UN climate summit COP26 is in action, with over 30,000 delegates from around the world are meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, to work out specific measures to support commitments made in the Paris Agreement 6 years ago. As with every meeting of this kind, there are many speeches and even more promises and pledges made — but as we have also learned, real action has often fallen short after the fanfare ends.

The world was reminded of this shortfall early into the conference when Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, a small island state on the frontlines of climate change, gave an impassioned speech. She called for climate finance for the world’s most vulnerable regions and reminded world leaders and the countries that promised climate finance of $100 billion a year that they were failing to meet the commitment. 

She reminded attendees that the world had spent $25 trillion on quantitative easing since 2013, with $9 trillion in the last 18 months alone. In 2019, pre-COVID, the difference was in the order of $20 billion. So why is the world so slow to provide the necessary finance to support mitigation and adaptation in the most climate-stressed regions of the world, which are also areas identified as high on the U.S. national security agenda?  

President Obama’s first UN climate summit in office was in Copenhagen in 2009. There he pledged to halt the world’s slide toward climate catastrophe. 

Copenhagen is considered a failure as far as climate conferences go, but 11 years later, and President Biden is making a similar pledge as his former boss did in 2009. But today the stakes are higher, though the narrative remains similar while the risks and threats multiply. 

Last week, the United States Department of Defense published the 2021 Climate Risk Analysis citing the myriad of climate security risks confronting the United States and the challenges climate change poses for domestic and broader national security. U.S. national security is challenged by greater regional instability resulting from increased food and water insecurity, threats to critical military infrastructure in the United States and overseas attributed to sea-level rise. These increased vulnerabilities highlight the growing intensity and cost of climate change-related to current and future national security threats. The report, although important, is not the first of its kind. The Pentagon and federal security agencies across the government have not been silent about the threats posed by more extreme risks due to climate.  

As early as 2005 and 2007, there were warnings from within the Defense Department that climate change would mean more significant risks to U.S. national security. In 2015 the White House published a report on the national security implications of climate change, predating that report was the Department of Energy’s 2015 quadrennial energy review and US CENTCOM’s Climate Change Assessment in 2014.

The problem is the vast disconnect between the dire warnings and what gets funding and attention when deciding on the Defense budget and priorities. There is a broad investment disconnect between what’s in the reports and the allocation of budget funds. For 2022, the budget request was $752.9 billion for national defense, $715 billion for the Department of Defense, and only $617 million was directed toward preparing for, adapting to and mitigating climate change. Other areas of the budget could be considered part of climate finance within Defense, but the explicit ask is below $1 billion. 

The United States military its ancillary agencies factor climate change into how they think about security, both within U.S. borders and beyond, but mitigating the human security challenges and addressing the threat multipliers from climate change is going to require a significant financial commitment to adequately address state and human security in some of the most vulnerable geopolitical hotspots.

When youth are hungry, poor and don’t see a viable future, they are more prone to violence and extremism — the research around Boko Haram and Al Shabab shows a connection between climate change and terrorism. As resources diminish and food, water and essentials for human life become harder to access due to environmental stresses, the competition for what’s left can quickly become deadly. 

Climate change is creating a new frontier of geostrategic competition in the Arctic, with Russia, an Arctic country, gaining an advantage with new military bases and a much more extensive fleet of icebreakers. Forty-two icebreakers, to be exact, and more are scheduled to be added. 

The United States is way behind Russia’s capabilities in the Arctic, we have two icebreakers, and no new additions were included in the national defense budget. It’s not just the Arctic that is on the frontlines of rapid warming, but also the ways climate-related risks are exacerbating and contributing to migration and poverty.  

In Central America, extreme and long-duration draughts are raising the specter of intolerable food insecurity and forcing whole families and communities to move —climate migration is not a future threat. It is now and forecasted only to get much worse.

Within the United States, our military bases need increased coverage and planning for extreme weather events, which were many over the last year. Extreme events have cost the United States billions of dollars in damages in recent years, such as at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune along the shores of North Carolina.  

It is no longer difficult to imagine the potential devastation of climate change. The world in 2021 illustrated what happens when extremes are no longer anomalies but the new normal, from excessive heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and more dangerous hurricanes and precipitation. 

Climate change is an accelerant of instability, with increasing risks of conflict relating to water and food shortages, many that we are already seeing, along with exacerbating tensions related to sea-level rise and new threat vulnerabilities for human and state security. Current policies won’t get us to climate stabilization. Still, we need to rethink funding priorities because what we don’t pay for now —we will pay for in greater insecurity and cost in the future. 

Carolyn Kissane is the academic director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Global Security, Conflict and Cyber at the Center for Global Affairs and a clinical professor at NYU School of Professional Studies, Center for Global Affairs. She is the director of the SPS NYU Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab. 

Tags Barack Obama Carolyn Kissane Climate change Defense Global warming hurricane Joe Biden National security sea-level rise

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