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How Might Biden’s Climate Plan Impact National Security?

On December 15, a panel of national security experts called on the incoming Biden administration to press U.S. defense and intelligence agencies to do more about climate change. The virtual event, hosted by the Center for Climate and security gathered the experts who set out recommendations for Biden and his growing team of climate specialists.

Just days after the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden updated his transition website to set out his administration’s key priorities for 2021 and beyond. The very fact that climate change featured as one of these four priority areas tells us that president-elect Biden will offer very different leadership on this issue to a president who has dismissed reports of climate change as “mythical and “nonexistent”.

Yet it is worth remembering that in 2009, before climate change became the political football it is today, Donald Trump signed a statement from business leaders which read “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

Despite this 2009 call to action, the Trump administration gave scant attention to climate goals, notoriously pulling out of the Paris Agreement that aims to reduce emissions and halt global warming. Biden’s presidency will therefore be a turning point for climate policy and process within the federal government, and across the United States. So what exactly are his plans for tackling climate change?

Biden’s climate change plan includes a clean energy revolution as well as a total commitment to the Green New Deal. The first point on Biden’s green list is to ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050. According to his plan, Biden will sign a series of new executive orders that will “put us on the right track.” He will also demand that Congress enacts legislation in the first year of his presidency that establishes an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025; makes a historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation; and incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations across the economy, especially in communities most impacted by climate change.

This alone, is a tall order, but not insurmountable. It will require dedicated efforts from within government as well as the will of the people, at a time when other issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and job security may be weighing more heavily on them.

Biden’s transition tagline is “Build Back Better” and in line with this he plans several infrastructure investments to build resilience in the face of natural disasters due to the impacts of climate change. As well as investing in buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure he also plans to boost climate resilience efforts by developing regional climate resilience plans, in partnership with local universities and national labs, for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.

America is often a country others look to when setting out their own goals and policies. Biden intends to use this position to “rally the rest of the world to meet the threat of climate change.” This includes a recommitment to the Paris Agreement, and Biden says he will lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets. Alongside this, he will fully integrate climate change into U.S. foreign policy and national security and trade strategies.

The president-elect also said he would “stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities” which taps into another priority area for him – racial inequality. It is fair to say that the Biden administration will stick to its promise to take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who knowingly harm the environment and poison communities’ air, land, and water.

The new administration’s climate plan ends with a pledge to “fulfill the obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution and subsequent decades of economic growth.” Biden pledges to, “not leave any workers or communities behind.”

At this early stage, it is unclear how this plan will directly impact the Department of Homeland Security, or the climate change risks facing military infrastructure, force readiness, military operations, and the broader security environment. But early signs are encouraging, not least the appointment of a climate change principal to the National Security Council.

Experts at the December 15 event were keen to make their voices heard before policy is decided, and put forward several recommendations, including:

  • Create a Climate Security Plan for America – a whole of government plan across multiple agencies to tackle the threats posed by climate change.
  • Appoint a standard bearer in the White House/ National Security Council to lead climate security efforts, with the ear of the President and the National Security Advisor.
  • Acknowledge climate change as a national security priority and integrate it into a new National Security Strategy.  The experts applauded Biden for already doing this, both in the campaign and now in the transition, and are watching to see him follow through by integrating climate change into his security strategy and related documents.

Less than 24 hours after these recommendations were made, Biden nominated Gina McCarthy as his senior adviser at the White House, coordinating climate change policy throughout the government. McCarthy was the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Biden has since also named Ali Zaidi, the deputy secretary for energy and environment for New York State, who helped write the president-elect’s climate plan, as McCarthy’s deputy.

Biden has of course already appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special envoy on climate, and it is Kerry who will be responsible for carrying out – and expanding – the president-elect’s climate plan. Kerry’s appointment marks the first time ever that a climate principal will be on the National Security Council, further highlighting the importance Biden places on climate security. Kerry’s initial comments on his new role have focused on the security threat posed by climate change.

Donald Trump’s picks at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have oft-been criticized by climate specialists for having little or no relevant experience. Biden’s EPA lead, Michael Regan, changes that. Currently Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality where he created an Environmental Justice and Equity Board, Regan has served at the EPA under both Democratic and Republican presidents — leading initiatives to improve energy efficiency and air quality and mitigate pollution.

One particular area that Biden and and his climate team may want to address without haste, is the effects of climate change on the Arctic, along with its military and security impact. This is a major area of concern as Russia prepares to take over from Iceland as the next chair of the Arctic Council next year. As a primary Arctic power, the U.S. has responsibility for stewardship and protection of vital environmental, security, economic, and political interests in the Arctic region. The U.S. Army has yet to publish an Arctic Strategy, though one is currently in development.

Integrating climate security into training and education programs will also be vital, to address both current and future climate challenges. The Center for Climate and Security had said earlier this year that security institutions around the globe should integrate climate knowledge and training into institutional frameworks to ensure that knowledge and understanding of climate change threats permeates the organizational culture. Adding climate security curricula to national and regional training and defense colleges, professional military education, could be one way that Biden’s administration could ensure a better degree of understanding going forward.

Whether it is the Arctic melt, Californian fires, Floridian floods, or a Tsunami on the other side of the world, the changing landscape due to climate change creates more security risks that need to be addressed in a plan to mitigate and address the effects of climate change. The science is clear – there is much work to do.

Whether Biden’s presidency can make a dent in the substantial work needed to get the planet back on an even keel remains to be seen. His climate plan will be helped by the fact that Democrats now have control of the entire executive branch since 2011. That Biden has recognized climate change as a hot topic and will attempt to make huge strides in preparation and mitigation of climate change is not in doubt, his ability to do so is however untested.

This story was updated on January 11.

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