Global loss of nature threatens US national security and influence abroad

Global loss of nature threatens US national security and influence abroad
© Getty Images

The National Intelligence Council recently released the Global Trends Report 2040 and it describes in bleak terms what’s ahead: The impacts of climate change combined with environmental degradation in the coming decades will undermine the essential elements of human security, including access to food, water and energy. These predictions are alarming, but the Biden administration has an opportunity to reverse course.

President BidenJoe BidenCaitlyn Jenner on Hannity touts Trump: 'He was a disruptor' Argentina launches 'Green Mondays' campaign to cut greenhouse gases On The Money: Federal judge vacates CDC's eviction moratorium | Biden says he's open to compromise on corporate tax rate | Treasury unsure of how long it can stave off default without debt limit hike MORE’s first months in office already underscore his intent to take the United States on a climate change U-turn and elevate the issue to a matter of national security. He named former Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy: Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process| EPA official directs agency to ramp up enforcement in overburdened communities | Meet Flint prosecutor Kym Worthy Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process Feehery: Biden seems intent on repeating the same mistakes of Jimmy Carter MORE as his climate envoy with a seat on the National Security Council and revived an Obama-era order focused on national security and climate change that former President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner on Hannity touts Trump: 'He was a disruptor' Ivanka Trump doubles down on vaccine push with post celebrating second shot Conservative Club for Growth PAC comes out against Stefanik to replace Cheney MORE had axed. As the Biden team advances on its agenda, they must open the security aperture beyond the traditional military focus to include protecting human and natural security.

For years, national security leaders have raised the alarm on climate change’s impact on U.S. military operations and facilities, as well as the risk of increased migration as it displaces people from their homes. Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under both Republican and Democratic presidents in 2016 warned that climate change carried significant “implications for political stability in a lot of countries where a lot of the population lives along the coast.” Similarly, the Department of Defense stated in 2015 that climate change could aggravate poverty, exasperate social tensions, cause environmental degradation, lead to ineffectual leadership and weaken political institutions that threaten U.S. stability in a number of countries.


The scale and scope of climate risks to food production, freshwater access and livelihoods demands investments that can reduce and buffer both climate and environmental degradation threats.

Greater conservation of natural lands provides needed buffers to these risks. Consider the benefits derived from the conservation of the natural environment. For example, when freshwater sources like rivers, lakes and aquifers are protected from human overuse and pollution there is greater water security for vulnerable populations. With resources protected, people can reduce sources of conflict as well as pressures to migrate in search of better economic opportunities. They can also resist inroads from bad actors. Terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and ISIS, are known to exploit food insecurity to further their ambitions.

Greater conservation of natural areas can also reduce pollution and prevent land degradation, all of which in turn protects people by preserving livelihoods, lives and ecosystems. In a world threatened by mass nature loss, conservation makes it easier for local populations to survive the extremes — more severe droughts, rainfall, heatwaves, weather and storms — that climate change and ecological disruption bring. With people, economies and public health better protected, U.S. national security is enhanced.

A critical first step for the Biden administration is to assess the security risks generated from ecological stress and evaluate possible policy solutions. Similar to assessments for other serious national security threats, the United States should establish a National Intelligence Estimate on threats posed by the global biodiversity crisis and nature loss. Conducting regular assessments of the quantified and qualified risks of ecological disruption can elevate the relative importance of ecological security issues, along with climate change, within the intelligence community prioritization framework. With a robust research agenda and systematically prioritizing these threats, the United States can work with its international partners to address threats to human security from climate change and environmental degradation, as well as biodiversity loss through greater conservation measures.

By helping vulnerable countries and people prepare for, defend against and build resilience to ecological disruption, the United States can help to reduce the damage and instability these events cause while building a safer world. In doing so, the nation can also protect its own national security and economic interests, at home and abroad. 

Alice C. Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, former special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council.