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Climate Security Experts Grade Biden Administration on Progress Made

“We are deeply appreciative of the way this Administration, members of Congress in both parties, and the uniformed services have prioritized the threat that climate change poses to national security,” said Erin Sikorsky, Director of CCS, “But we call this report Challenge Accepted because it’s important to see this as more of a job well begun than a job well done.”

On April 18, United States National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy held the eleventh meeting of the National Climate Task Force to launch a week of Administration actions to tackle the climate crisis leading up to Earth Day on April 22.

The Task Force received a briefing from Dr. Kate Calvin, NASA Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor and lead author on the recently-published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report on Climate Mitigation. The Task Force agreed that the findings are clear and compelling, stating that “the world must accelerate climate action and we have the tools to fight the climate crisis in every part of the economy”. The Task Force discussed further how the Administration’s efforts were aligned with the IPCC’s findings — focused on tackling emissions sector-by-sector by deploying record amounts of clean energy; electrifying our cars, trucks, and buses; decarbonizing industrial processes; and phasing down super-polluting HFCs.

In a statement reviewing work undertaken since April 2021, the White House said the Biden Administration has “turbocharged the American offshore wind industry, jumpstarted our electric transportation future, helped weatherize homes to save families money, enlisted nature in the fight against climate change, and more – all while advancing environmental justice and creating good-paying, union jobs”.

The National Climate Task Force microsite has been updated to reflect these Administration accomplishments and continued climate action.

Meanwhile, a group of climate security experts have been monitoring the administration’s work on climate resilience. On March 31, 2022, seventy-nine senior military, national security and intelligence leaders of the Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), an extraordinary group chaired by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) in partnership with the Elliott School of International Affairs, released “Challenge Accepted: A Progress Report on the Climate Security Plan for America and Recommendations for the Way Ahead.”  This report assesses progress against the recommendations made by the Climate Security Advisory Group in 2019, many of which were incorporated into the current administration’s security plans.

The non-partisan group, which includes eight retired 4-star generals and admirals, a former Director of National Intelligence, a former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a former NASA Administrator, and many other retired military officers, security officials and experts, has assessed the progress made since the publication of the original report.

“As the eyes of the security community are, deservedly, focused on the war in Ukraine, it’s important to recognize that the security community can – and must – be able to deal with multiple challenges at once,” said Sherri Goodman, Chairwoman of the Board of the Council on Strategic Risks – CCS’s parent organization.  “China remains the pacing threat, and climate change is a threat multiplier that will amplify many threats and make others harder to manage.”

“We are deeply appreciative of the way this Administration, members of Congress in both parties, and the uniformed services have prioritized the threat that climate change poses to national security,” said Erin Sikorsky, Director of CCS, “But we call this report Challenge Accepted because it’s important to see this as more of a job well begun than a job well done.”

The original 2019 report included recommendations under four pillars of action – Demonstrate Leadership; Assess Climate Risks; Support Allies and Partners; and Prepare for and Prevent Climate Impacts.  Challenge Accepted assesses progress in each of these areas and offers new recommendations for the Administration going forward. Both reports were produced with generous support from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.

The Progress Report

Demonstrate Leadership

CSAG assessed that the Administration has truly demonstrated leadership in prioritizing the implications of climate change on national security and met 9 of the 13 recommendations it offered in the first pillar of its original report.  

For example, in line with the recommendation to elevate climate security leadership at the Department of Defense (DoD), the department created a Senior Advisor for Climate to the Secretary of Defense and established a Climate Working Group to coordinate DoD climate activities. However, no specific senior advisor on climate security has been appointed at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), despite a recommendation to do so. DHS has, however, announced an advisory council on climate as well as a climate change action group.

CSAG saw much progress in this area in the form of executive orders which drive climate policy.

However, there does appear to have been something of a stall between the initial plans and promises and real progress being made. While CSAG saw progress in the other three pillars, its recommendations were generally not fully achieved. 

To be fair to the current administration, progress in other areas will inevitably take more time to materialize, but it is vital that pressure is maintained on improving climate security even while focus may be on other crises such as the coronavirus pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Because the climate crisis isn’t going anywhere, nor will it wait while attention is elsewhere.

Assess Climate Risks

CSAG found progress in several areas, such as prioritizing intelligence assessments on climate security, assessing vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure, assessing risks to the U.S. military, and initiating climate change research. Progress made includes a National Intelligence Estimate on climate threats, which was completed in October 2021. However CSAG says each of these areas require more work. 

Support Allies and Partners

More work is also required in this area. CSAG notes that DOD has announced some ad-hoc climate security cooperation with specific countries, such as sharing its Defense Climate Assessment Tool with Japan and South Korea. However, it found there is significant progress needed to fully incorporate climate security measures into DoD and State Department security assistance and cooperation programs.

The administration is however increasing international investment in climate resilience. At COP26 in November, President Biden made a commitment to increase international contributions for adaptation and resilience – up to $3 billion annually by 2024. The First Movers Coalition was also launched at COP26. This is a public-private partnership between the U.S. government and private companies, focused on the most difficult to decarbonize industries.

Prepare for and Prevent Climate Impacts

This area has seen several encouraging advancements although much work remains. For example, new defense investments are now required to incorporate climate resilient building standards, and existing infrastructure is retrofitted for climate resilience. There have been increases in funding for resilient infrastructure in the FY22 budget request, but CSAG says these investments are not yet at the scale needed. In addition, the National Security Council is developing a National Arctic Strategy to consider climate security and expanded activity. CSAG also found that climate literacy is improving in federal agencies although it calls for a need to better integrate this into training plans.

The biggest impediment in this area has been Congressional opposition to the ambitious efforts needed to make the necessary impact.

Recommendations

Looking ahead to the coming years, CSAG recommends the following actions to improve climate security:

  • Resource the Administration’s Ambition: Ensure there is funding for the climate efforts in the ambitious plans published in the Administration’s first year;
  • Emphasize Transparency: Publish clear metrics against which progress will be measured;
  • Improve Forecasting of Disasters: Invest in Earth system science, data collection and climate forecasting models, including at the seasonal and subseasonal timeframes;
  • Mainstream Climate Security within the State Department: Incorporate climate impacts into agency strategies and policies, including Integrated Country Strategies;
  • Invest in Security Infrastructure: Increase investment in security infrastructure to bolster resilience, especially since DoD was left out of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law; and
  • Create a National Adaptation Plan: Initiate an overarching plan ensuring that federal investments and activities contribute to future resilience.

“This report has a clear conclusion that resonates throughout the document,” said John Conger, Director Emeritus of CCS.  “The Administration gets credit for saying all the right things and for making climate change an essential element of national security and foreign policy, but now it’s time to take the next step.  To get full credit, they have to move from words to deeds.  Otherwise, they’re just admiring the problem.”

Climate security is of course a global problem, and while there may be some encouraging signs that the Biden administration is addressing some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges, the effort is made much more difficult without cooperation from other countries. Many have their own climate security goals which align with those of the U.S. but others do not. For example, in December the U.S. voted along with many other countries in favor of a United Nations Security Council resolution on climate security that would have, among other things, required data sharing and a comprehensive study on climate security risks. The resolution failed however due to a veto from Russia. The U.S. and China have put aside differences and agreed to work together on a number of climate initiatives. A similar agreement was made with Russia in July, but with today’s volatile situation in Ukraine, any progress is currently out of the question.

Read the complete progress report at the Center for Climate and Security

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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