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

The disappointing news from the CIA demonstrates that, while some in the federal government have made an encouraging start, much more immediate action is required. But would a presidential council on global climate change amount to another layer of red tape in the foreign policy bureaucracy? The pressing nature of the problem, its complexity, and the failure of the government to meaningfully address it so far suggest that in fact, a bureaucratic imperative, as unsexy as it sounds, would be the best first step to effectively prepare for climate change. The U.S. possesses the tools required, but not an across-the-board strategy, borne out of a highly visible, ongoing effort combining several relevant branches, departments, and agencies. One potential model of interagency cooperation is the Atrocities Prevention Board, created this past April by President Obama to coordinate action on preventing genocide, which draws together senior officials from a dozen government agencies. The APB, like a putative Climate Security Strategy Board, aims not to recreate any of its constituent agencies, but improve coordination among them. Climate change, like genocide prevention, is a concern that crosses over the established bureaucratic boundaries of regional specialization. In the absence of a centralized body, separate agencies and departments might prioritize the steps necessary to mitigate climate change's effects, and eventually build resiliency against future extreme climate events. However, this Balkanized process might lead to wasteful duplication of effort, and agencies would be deprived of best practices and lessons learned. It would be difficult to identify critical priorities for further research or action. All of the tools of American foreign policy, including development assistance, diplomacy, foreign trade, and, ultimately, military power, will have to work closely together. Changing institutional cultures is a long-term proposition; efforts at improving the interagency process must start somewhere.

What would this new Climate Security Strategy Board do? Climate and social sciences offer one promising avenue of inquiry: the development, as a planning tool, of climate "stress tests" that would help guide decision-makers on how climate-related events might affect security posture. In order to prioritize how national security resources are directed toward prospective climate emergencies, policymakers need to know which countries are the most susceptible to a serious disruption caused to some extent by a climate-related event or series of events. One sample "stress test" might look at Africa's agricultural yield under the pressure of increasingly high temperatures during growing seasons. As the World Bank reports, a one-degree Celsius rise in daily temperature over the course of a growing season could lead to suboptimal yields in 65 percent of maize-growing areas in Africa. A comprehensive climate "stress test" would then map out the likely impact on food prices, health indicators, and habitation patterns (Would there be a greater influx of human migration into urban areas?). Further analysis would assess political stability of nations most likely experiencing these adverse effects. In an ideal world, the Climate Board would issue recommendations on how U.S. aid, economic, and diplomatic initiatives could be re-engineered to head-off the worst consequences of such accumulative increases in temperature. Working either with or under the structure of the National Security Council, its recommendations could directly influence presidential decision-making. In the aggregate, such analyses would, over time, help inform responses to climate change across the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy. It would build a body of knowledge that could buttress global efforts to prepare for and respond to extreme climate-related events.

All of the available, credible science says that climate disruptions will increase in frequency and severity. As a result, the need for mechanisms in-place to quickly and accurately advise policymakers will similarly increase. While the science may be settled, the strategy is not. Convening an interagency effort to better understand the national security implications, and make concrete recommendations is vitally necessary.

Presented by

Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at The Century Foundation.

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