A Warming Planet's Foreign-Policy Challenge for the United States

Why the extreme risk and uncertainty of rapid climate change requires a new national-security framework.

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A roller coaster sits in the ocean after the boardwalk it was built upon collapsed during Hurricane Sandy, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey on November 28, 2012. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

Superstorm Sandy clearly demonstrated the ability of extreme climate events to disrupt critical economic and transportation infrastructure and cause immeasurable human suffering in and around the world's financial capital. The climate science suggests that such events will become more severe, more widespread, and more unpredictable. While Sandy has directed renewed attention to the impact of climate change on the continental United States, the global impact of climate change requires a similar level of focus and serious appreciation among national security decision-makers. If President Obama wants to be taken seriously on climate change, as his victory speech and press conference seemed to suggest, his efforts must go beyond resilience on the domestic front. The best first step the president can take is to create a new structure within the foreign policy bureaucracy, answerable to his National Security Council, which will prioritize contingency planning and make recommendations across multiple departments and agencies so that U.S. foreign policy can seriously address a whole series of coming climate catastrophes. This is a challenge that will require years of planning, billions of dollars, and political decisions that might be unpopular and most certainly won't have the urgency of a shooting war or a "fiscal cliff." Without decisive action now, U.S. policy will experience a dangerous drift in strategic planning.

If President Obama is serious about addressing climate change, he needs to demonstrate across the foreign policy bureaucracy that anticipating and mitigating the effects of climate change is a high-priority. A new report from the National Research Council only reinforces the view that combined action across a wide variety of hitherto uncoordinated agencies and departments is necessary. "These shared needs for [climate change] knowledge," the report reads, "suggest that knowledge development is best pursued as a cooperative activity involving many organizations." Federal interagency cooperation, it continues, should be advanced through the oversight of the President's national security adviser, possibly through collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which focuses on advancing the understanding of climate science. As the report states, this combined effort should "develop priorities for research on climate vulnerability and adaptation and consider strategies for providing appropriate research support." That research support would not just focus on unique climate-related events, but on how such events interact with existing political, economic, and social forces in areas where the United States has a vital security interest.

If Obama is serious about taking on climate change, his efforts must go beyond resilience on the domestic front.

Recent research shows there are distinctive security components to climate change, the effects of which will become critical priorities for the United States and international community in coming decades. As a recent World Bank report starkly states: "The projected impacts [of a four-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures] on water availability, ecosystems, agriculture, and human health could lead to large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems." As long as the United States maintains global responsibilities, it will have to react to and plan for these effects.

A warming planet presents a foreign policy challenge to the United States: it exacerbates natural resource scarcity in sensitive regions of the world, fueling inter- and intra-state conflict. The U.S. government should develop plans for adapting to and mitigating the harmful effects of a changing climate.

The Pentagon and the intelligence community have made tentative steps toward incorporating a focus on climate, but it's hard to judge its place in the hierarchy of agency and department priorities. The Pentagon's most recent Quadrennial Defense Review included a push toward climate change and clean energy strategies. The Office of the Director National Intelligence has published several reports attempting to forecast the impact of climate change on national security priorities. The Central Intelligence Agency created a Center for Climate Change and National Security, but then shut it down -- a clear reflection of misplaced priorities (ironically, the NRC report was commissioned by the intelligence community, and published only a week before the CIA turned its back on looking closely at climate).

Presented by

Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at The Century Foundation.

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