(Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

Climate Change in U.S. National Security Strategies under Obama, Trump and Biden

Dr Marc Kodack compares presidential leadership on climate policies for the Center for Climate and Security:

As the Biden administration’s national security team ramps up efforts to incorporate climate change and its effects into their agencies and policies, work will begin on crafting a new National Security Strategy (NSS). To guide national security decision-making while the full strategy is drafted, President Biden has released interim national security strategic guidance (here). With the availability of this guidance we can compare and contrast how President Biden plans to address climate change and national security with how these issues were tackled in Obama and Trump National Security Strategies published in 2015 and 2017, respectively. In short, the Obama and Biden strategic guidance is strong on climate security (with Biden’s being especially robust), while the Trump NSS was almost entirely silent on the subject. Below is a detailed review.

The 2015 Obama National Security Strategy

In the Preamble of President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS), the increased effects of climate change are noted among several challenges facing the U.S. including violent extremism, terrorism, cybersecurity, and infectious disease outbreaks. To address these and other challenges, the Obama administration argued the U.S. needs to take a leadership role and work towards bringing together others across the global community, such as the U.S. commitment with China for both countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The document commits the U.S. to drawing on multiple aspects of the nation’s strength to address its strategic risks and opportunities.

In the Introduction, general actions that the U.S. is taking to address climate change, both domestically and overseas, are mentioned but not described in detail. Climate change is named as one of the eight top strategic risks that the U.S. faces, including two others which can be influenced or exacerbated by climate change—the spread of global infectious diseases and reduced security within weak or failing states. Climate change is noted as a shared vulnerability around the world as interdependence and interconnectivity increases.

To emphasize the importance of climate change to the NSS and U.S. national security, it has its own dedicated section within the Obama NSS. The section notes climate change is already occurring, e.g., sea level rise, storm surges, both of which threaten existing infrastructure, and that the U.S. is working at home and with others around the world to meet the challenge. For example, the NSS notes that U.S. emissions reductions were greater than any other country’s for the period 2010-2015. 

The climate section of the NSS then mentions multiple actions that the Obama administration took to address current and future climate change. For example, through implementation of the Climate Action Plan, greenhouse gas emissions were expected to decrease between 26-28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. Power plants were also required to reduce their emissions (see here). Internationally, the U.S. and China agreed to reduce their carbon pollution, the U.S. pledged to contribute to the Green Climate  Fund to assist developing nations address climate change, and the U.S. would work with dozens of other countries to reduce greenhouse gases using the Montreal Protocol (see here, here, and here), previously successfully used to decrease the use of ozone depleting chemicals. In Africa, the U.S. will work with African entrepreneurs to bring clean energy projects on-line and assist farmers with increasing their sustainability.

The chapter on International Order notes the U.S. commitment to working with China on climate change, as well as partnerships with other countries in North and South America to increase climate resilience.

The 2017 Trump National Security Strategy

In contrast, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) only explicitly mentions climate change in passing and not in reference to U.S. actions. However, there are some implicit references to climate change and its effects.

The Preamble sets the strategic context for the threats that the U.S. faced. Climate change was not one of them. For example, threats to the United States mentioned included North Korea and its nuclear weapons, Iran, and, terrorists and extremists in the Middle East. Following from the listed threats, the overall vision of the NSS is to “protect America,” promote its prosperity and influence on others, and preserve peace by “being strong.” In the Introduction, in addition to the threats mentioned in the Preamble, China and Russia are described as direct competitors to the U.S. To blunt this and other competition, the document says the U.S. needs to assume a leadership role as well as being militarily strong, resulting in a strong America which will deter war and promote peace. 

Despite the absence of explicit references to climate change in the Preamble and Introduction, there are some perhaps implicit references to the effects of climate change in Trump’s NSS, such as a discussion of the impacts of extreme weather events. For example, within the chapter titled, “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life,” the document stresses that increased preparedness and resilience in the face of natural disasters must become an integral part of government operations, including U.S. economic and political systems, and be incorporated into critical infrastructure. To keep ahead of its competitors, the document notes that federal agencies need to improve their understanding of worldwide science and technology trends and how these trends may affect their strategies and programs.

The “Promote American Prosperity” chapter indicates that under President Trump, climate policies will continue influencing international energy systems. The chapter goes on to note that the United States will maintain its position as a global leader in the reduction of greenhouse gases not through regulation, but through “innovation, technology breakthroughs, and energy efficiency gains” – an implicit acknowledgment of climate change trends.

Within the“Advance American Influence” chapter, priority areas include strengthening weak and fragile states so they do not threaten the United States at home, and the continuation of U.S. leadership in response to international, made-made and natural disasters. As part of this leadership role, the NSS notes that the U.S. will support food security and assist displaced populations until they can voluntarily return home. In short, issues related to climate change are noted, but without making any direct connections.

The 2021 Biden Interim National Security Strategic Guidance

In the Preamble of the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategic Guidance (NSS Guidance), the interim guidance notes the U.S, and others are exposed to four challenges: the current COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the fourth industrial revolution. The document argues that how best to address these challenges has created tension between autocratic and democratic political systems, but by working with multiple democratic partners and leveraging its long-term advantages, the U.S. will meet and blunt these and other challenges.

In the Global Security Landscape chapter, the NSS interim guidance says that China and Russia are testing U.S. strength in multiple places. Regionally, Iran and North Korea seek to interfere with U.S. allies and its partners. Other threats outlined include weak governance in countries, influential non-state actors, and terrorism, both within and outside the U.S. Meanwhile, the Biden administration notes, technological innovation and revolution are occurring in computing (artificial intelligence), communication (5G), bio-technology, and clean energy. Also, emerging clean energy technologies are needed to mitigate climate change. However, the interim guidance states that these technological changes are unsettled, creating risks, and the U.S. and its partners need to work together to ensure that the full benefits of these technologies are captured.

The “Our National Securities Priorities” chapter notes that partnerships are critical to the U.S., including bilateral ones with Canada and Mexico, and multilateral ones with the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The chapter goes on to state that the United States will work with multiple partner nations in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa to address the regional effects of climate change. An interesting omission is that while the United States commits to working on regional security issues such as terrorism and humanitarian crises with partner nations in the Middle East, climate change is not listed among those issues.

International cooperation on climate change will again be a priority for the United States under the Biden Administration’s guidance, including actively engaging with China. Already, the U.S. re-entered the Paris Climate Accord and a Presidential Special Envoy for Climate (former Secretary of State John Kerry) has been appointed, with a seat on the National Security Council. The Biden administration has pledged to lower global carbon emissions and increase climate resilience, and humanitarian and developmental assistance will be offered to partners who are affected by natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. The interim guidance notes that the U.S. will invest in food and water security at home and abroad to increase agricultural resilience and improve public health, and these investments will be informed by climate change considerations.  This guidance is already shaping actions within the Department of Defense (DoD) – see here – where Secretary Austin has pledged that climate resilience and clean energy will be central to building for the future.

Conclusion

The Obama NSS and Biden NSS guidance both place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of addressing climate change in the context of national security for the United States and others around the world, with the Biden NSS being especially robust in this space. Meanwhile, the Trump NSS is silent on climate change as a national security concern. The contrast is striking, particularly given that the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) was released under the Trump Administration. The NCA is the definitive report by multiple federal agencies of the state of climate change and its effects on multiple sectors and regions within the United States, including forecasts for highly likely climate conditions into the future, e.g., increases in aridity and increases in temperatures.  For its part, the DoD has largely adopted this science, and throughout both the Obama and Trump years, though the level of adoption varied,  DoD continued its efforts to address climate security risks, often in response to Congressional  requirements. Under the Biden Administration and Secretary Austin’s leadership, it is clear that the DoD will be ramping up its efforts to further integrate climate change and its implications into the department’s functions. Every other federal agency will be doing the same (here). When the full Biden NSS is finally released it will almost certainly expand on the importance of climate change for national security, as outlined in the interim guidance. Climate change will continue to show itself in multidimensional ways across the globe.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

Read the article at the Center for Climate and Security

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