Kerry raises hopes for focus on climate security at NSC
Security experts are hopeful that former Secretary of State John Kerry will use his special envoy role on the National Security Council (NSC) to focus not just on emissions reductions but the broader risks posed by climate change.
The first-of-its-kind position at the NSC has been branded as a sort of international climate czar who will be responsible for shepherding the U.S. through negotiations after President-elect Joe Biden rejoins the Paris climate agreement on Jan. 20.
But beyond the diplomatic realm, Kerry’s seat at the NSC table presents an opportunity to push for more robust planning around the national security impact of climate change.
“Some people see climate change as a long term threat and not an immediate issue we need to deal with,” said Erin Sikorsky, deputy director for the Center for Climate and Security, who joined the organization last month after serving for three years in the Trump administration as a deputy director on the National Intelligence Council.
“We need strategies for dealing with the current climate security risks that are already happening that the national security landscape in the U.S. will be dealing with in the next year to four years,” she added.
U.S. military facilities are already seeing the effects of climate change with sea level rise, hurricanes and wildfires. In 2018, storms racked up $9 billion in damages at just three stateside bases.
But far worse consequences could be yet to come.
Climate change is expected to disrupt agriculture and water supplies while increasing global tensions.
Security experts say the federal government needs to be planning for those international conflicts, both within and between nations, as well as the potential for climate refugees.
“The truth is there is no international system for dealing with the refugee climate crisis. These people do not get afforded the legally protected status of refugees,” said Andrew Holland, chief operating officer at the American Security Project, a Washington-based think tank.
That kind of disruption — whether it’s terrorist groups using climate-related economic insecurity and food shortages as a recruitment tool or countries fighting over water rights — “is a world in which the U.S. military is not powerful enough to keep the lid on all the global crises that are happening,” Holland said.
At the tail end of the Obama administration, the Pentagon and other agencies were asked to assess how climate change would impact national security. Since then, Democratic lawmakers have fumed that the Defense Department has done only a cursory review of climate risk during the Trump administration, failing to even mention the base damage from the 2018 storm season.
“Until President Trump put his heavy hand on the scales, there was quite a bit of work being done by various security apparatuses,” said former Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), who, before retiring this year, sponsored a bill calling for a Climate Security Intelligence Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The Biden administration could get the ball rolling again, and there’s hope Kerry could help integrate climate change into existing analyses, evaluating how it intersects and exacerbates other security risks.
Sikorsky gave the example of Russia, where the melting Arctic is expected to open new shipping passageways. Moscow is already reinforcing its military presence in the north as a way of protecting what they see as a domestic transport route.
Sikorsky, along with Heck, is among those who have called for additional climate-related offices within the NSC, a move she says could put a permanent focus on the issue and ensure climate is considered in a range of decisions across presidential administrations.
“With functional issues across the national security apparatus, you need senior champions in NSC and other places to make sure they’re paid attention to and focused on or otherwise they get shunted to the side,” she said.
Kerry could help facilitate that role, she said, much like cybersecurity and terrorism are focal points across regions and programs in the federal government.
Still, it’s not entirely clear what authority Kerry will have at the NSC or if he will have enough staff embedded in the agency to carry out significant change on the climate front.
Kerry will likely have an office within the State Department, but a transition official said the logistics are still being worked out.
It’s a telling detail, Holland said, since a lack of Kerry staffers at the NSC could mean Biden views his former Senate colleague’s role as more of a “climate negotiator on steroids” than an integral piece of the security community.
“The bureaucracy is still unclear to me and others on where they are going to sit. Are they going to be State Department employees or White House employees? It’s not clear,” Holland said.
Heck pushed for more resources within the NSC to address climate change, something he said would “highlight yet another extraordinary expense with failing to act on climate change.”
Though his legislative efforts to create a permanent office were unsuccessful, he managed to secure a Climate Security Advisory Council at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We need to be making sure that they all are sharing the information about the impacts that climate change is having so we can be best prepared. It’s about gathering and sharing intelligence,” Heck said.
“This includes droughts creating food shortages, creating mass migration, creating friction in countries where this is occurring. Everything on that end to sea rise where the Navy has ports all over the world. Where are we going to dock our ships and are those docks going to be rendered useless without massive investments? Are we on top of assessing what our vulnerabilities are?” he continued.
Democrats have had difficulty engaging Republicans on climate issues.
“It should be a central national security or foreign policy issue. It’s … something that many Cold War warriors and old-school types like too many in the GOP just dismiss as the soft stuff,” said David Donniger, a senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But Sikorsky is hopeful that the security ramifications of climate change are an area where the Biden administration may find a more helpful Congress, even as other climate change legislation has failed to advance.
“It’s a good opportunity for the administration to continue to focus on climate issues through that lens because they are going to get support perhaps through places you wouldn’t expect it,” she said.
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