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 directive, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) will be generated over the next four months by officials from over a dozen intelligence agencies, including the CIA, on the national and economic security effects of climate change, with a high degree of detail on issues described as major threats to the United States. When significant threats are detected, this mechanism will activate considerable capital from across departments.
Climate change is a security issue, in every practical sense of the word. Look no farther than Texas, where power shortages are now roiling the state in the middle of a massive cold snap, leaving millions in freezing temperatures without heat and electricity.
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.
Any part of life will be influenced by climate change, so it’s long overdue to factor the problem into all facets of government policy. Yet it is necessary to question whether the terms of the climate crisis are being implemented into the various agencies’ missions.
What kind of ‘defense’ is more effective against the climate crisis, most fundamentally: reciprocal security, which encourages collaboration against a collective ecological threat? Or a mindset of the fortress that identifies others as obstacles, to be dominated or even eliminated?
Without a consistent humanitarian context on how the climate crisis should reshape foreign policy, narrowly interpreting it in terms of “national security” risks strengthening America’s militarized approach to the rest of the world. This poses the possibility of further conflict and turmoil when it is most urgent to create the collaboration and international unity required for the collective sustainability of the world economy to be green.
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.
As early as 2003, the climate crisis was presented as a national security problem by Pentagon planners. Yet their findings are often resigned to a “armed lifeboat” solution to an increasingly overheating world rather than highlighting the need to accelerate a green transformation. They call for the reinforcement of military bases, the planning for war, the shutting down of borders, and even the use of anti-civilian counterinsurgency tactics to suppress social unrest.
Recent studies have been more precise about the huge array of desired new militarized tools and the terms under which they could be utilized.
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 study even poses the likelihood that domestic military activities within the U.S. can be extended to cope with climate-related crises such as pandemics, food shortages, and even blackouts of the electricity grid, a situation much like what we saw in Texas. The governor is sending National Guard forces in the absence of robust civilian public utilities to respond to such crises.
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.
Long before Trump, what my colleague Basav Sen calls “obstructionist-in-chief” was the key position of the United States in global climate negotiations. U.S. delegates have watered down carbon control promises and declined to take responsibility for the greenhouse emissions released into the atmosphere from fossil-fueled industrialization worth more than a century.
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.
The last thing we need is a reason to stuff more funds into an increasingly unsustainable Pentagon budget, which already absorbs over half of U.S. budgetary spending, in the midst of a social crisis that demands a radical overhaul of our economic structure.
The Pentagon, for one thing, has consistently skipped rigorous evaluations and does not follow a fair fiscal accountability requirement. The Pentagon diverted $1 billion in relief funding from COVID-19 last year that was intended to finance defensive equipment to jet parts weapons manufacturers.
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
For the obstructionist-in-chief of the nation, focusing the climate issue through both foreign policy and “security” considerations is a significant move forward, and definitely an improvement from Trump. But there’s the devil in the details.
It would be a tragedy to base our climate policies upon dominance abroad and locked borders at home. It would protect land for only a privileged few, leaving everyone else in an increasingly conflict-ridden, warming planet to search for crumbs. That course will only encourage the fossil-fuelled fascist movements lurking behind Trump, pointing to even darker pathways ahead.
Investment in mutual protection is the answer, not a “armed lifeboat” to nowhere. There are all manner of concrete steps the Biden administration should take to ensure that our climate agenda really keeps people safe, from a Green New Deal to climate diplomacy to refugee settlement.
Achieving a planet beyond a climate catastrophe in the long term involves a massive reorientation of the United States towards multinational collaboration, reverence for international law, and equal rights for all.