“An urgent national security threat.”

That’s the phrase U.S. Director of National intelligence Avril Haines used in describing climate change at the White House Climate Summit on Earth Day a few weeks ago.

It’s the kind of language that national security interests have applied previously, but not since the Trump administration took office on January 20, 2017, and soon put the kibosh on such talk. Conversations about climate change and national security continued under the Trump presidency, but not so much in the open, and certainly not with the imprimatur of the Oval Office.

“I think now, those voices will be elevated and be more public,” said Mark Nevitt, a professor in environmental and national security law at Syracuse University. 

The National Intelligence Council in March published its Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World report. Focusing on national security challenges expected over the next 20 years, it cites climate change as being a major challenge and risk-multiplier. The report suggests that climate change will likely increase inequality and competition and thus decrease security. 

Erin Sikorsky, part of the team that authored the Global Trends 2040 report, now works as Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Security and Director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security.

“When you talk about keeping Americans safe, if that’s the purpose of national security at its core level, then managing climate risks is part and parcel of that, because they’re the thing that threatens Americans the most, these days,” Sikorsky said.

How does climate change multiply security risks?

Climate change intersects with national security in several ways. Climate change directly threatens military bases and personnel through higher temperatures, continued sea-level rise, and other extreme weather events, and can worsen the impacts of some natural disasters. 

“I served for a period of time in Norfolk, Virginia, as an environmental lawyer, and that’s the largest Navy base in the world,” Nevitt said. “The seas are rising, the soil is sinking. How are we going to adapt for this and save the infrastructure?”

Sikorsky added that climate change likely will lead to more humanitarian and disaster-relief missions in the U.S. and around the world.

The global trends report also addresses more indirect ways that climate change is expected to intersect with national security. The key takeaways cited in the report are that:

  • The developing world will bear some of the worst natural disasters which will intensify risks to food, water, health, and energy security.
  • The demand for energy and carbon dioxide removal technologies will grow increasingly desperate, leading to more calls for geoengineering, “despite possibly dire consequences.”
  • Countries will debate over required sacrifices and concessions as the world moves toward net-zero emissions. The burdens and benefits won’t be equal across all nations, leading to heightened competition, increased instability, strained military readiness, and more political discord.

Overall, climate change adds an extra layer of analysis to all security risks. “If you don’t take climate change into account, then your interventions are going to be lacking,” Sikorsky said. “You’re going to miss some things because you’re not building resilience to what we know is coming in terms of the climate shocks.”

Global Trends 2040 puts spotlight on climate change 

While climate change and global security for some time have been a topic of policy deliberations, the Global Trends 2040 report brings climate change to the forefront more than any of its predecessors had done. 

“It’s a pretty clear-eyed objective report,” Nevitt said. “There’s five different themes on the first few pages. And climate change is right there with the global challenges, right there with technology, disruption, disease, financial crisis.”

Sikorsky said the team putting together the report knew climate change would need to be emphasized more than in earlier years. The report, she said, is informed by data and models, and also through conversations with experts and qualitative research.

“The authors travel around the globe, and meet with people and talk to them about their experiences,” Sikorsky said. “And it’s impossible to have those conversations in a lot of the world without climate change being discussed as something that’s shaping people’s everyday lives already.”

Nevitt noted that he is pleased the report digs into areas like attribution science which is used to understand the role climate change plays in shaping weather events, and also explores the importance of feedback loops. “That’s sort of the cutting edge of climate science that’s being integrated into an intelligence document,” He said. “That shows me that there’s a real active engagement, it’s not passive.”

Nevitt’s only qualm? He is concerned the report may be overly optimistic about how much the international community can agree on a critical point: quickly reducing, and perhaps also eliminating, greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent exceding 1.5°C of warming even earlier than the report expects

Looking toward 2040

Sikorsky and Nevitt both say they hope national security professionals continue to move toward a broader definition of what security is, so that it fully encompasses climate change matters. 

“It’s one of those things we’ve kind of had, even under the Trump administration, you had a grassroots effort among many agencies of younger folks who had come in saying, look, we got to put this issue front and center,” Sikorsky said. “What was missing was folks at the higher level.”

Nevitt also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reframing of national security beyond just threats from foreoign governments or alien organizations: The pandemic has shown clearly  that non-traditional threats can be just as deadly as conventional ones.

Moving forward, Sikorsky said it is important to institutionalize some of these changes so that even when top leadership changes, the commitment doesn’t fall off. 

“I think the challenge now is turning the rhetoric into action,” she said.

Samantha Harrington

Samantha Harrington, Associate Editor of Yale Climate Connections, is a journalist and graphic designer, with a background in digital media and entrepreneurship. "Sam" is especially interested in sharing...