With warming temperature playing a role in everything from mass migrations (see Central America and the U.S. southern border) to civil war (see Syria), climate change has been a factor in national security for decades.
This week the U.S. finally got with the program. Among the many climate-relatedexecutive orders President Joe Biden signed on Wednesday was one directing the federal government to make climate change an integral part of its foreign and national security policy.
The power of the NIE is in how it’s used, said John Morton, a former senior director for energy and climate change on President Obama’s National Security Council. “When climate change is seen purely through an environmental lens you get one audience,” he said. “When you add a national security lens that draws in a further groups of policy makers who may not care at all about the environmental imperative but clearly see the long-term national security implications to act.”
It also has legs. “Once that assessment gets done, it is the basis for policy-making for a good chunk of time,” Morton said. Smaller climate assessments done for the Department of Defense are already playing a role in deciding whether to fortify naval bases at risk from rising seas and informingpolicing strategy in the Arctic now that warming has made it more attractive to U.S. adversaries including China and Russia.
If the NIE concludes that climate change presents a grave security risk, vast agency resources could be mobilized—national security-related budget items can be huge. It’s this awesome power that troubles some climate activists, who worry that nationalizing a global problem would leave poorer countries once again with the short end of the stick.
“In the U.S., national security is most often defined as what threatens U.S. homeland, U.S. economic partners, U.S. allies, but most of all U.S. military, economic, or geopolitical power,” said Nick Buxton, author of The Secure and the Dispossessed, a book about the security state’s contributions to climate change. Vulnerable populations and communities may find their concernsdeprioritized against, say, the needs of military and security installations.
“National security bodies talk in foreboding terms of waves of migration that could overwhelm nation states saying that the military will need to be prepared,” Buxton added. “In this way the most vulnerable in the world are not only victims of climate change, but now threats too.”
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