Symposium | The Election & the World

The Mounting Threats of Climate Change

By Cathleen Kelly

Tagged Climate ChangeenvironmentForeign Policynational security

Once considered a back-burner domestic policy issue, the environment—particularly the urgent need to curb climate change—has emerged as a pressing foreign policy and national security challenge. Extreme droughts, heat waves, floods, and other natural disasters have triggered humanitarian crises and mass migrations, exacerbating poverty, accelerating conflict, and wreaking havoc from the Middle East and Africa to Asia, the Amazon, and the Arctic.

The need to address climate change internationally tops President Obama’s foreign-policy agenda and is a key pillar of U.S. defense strategy, which flags climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will “aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” More extreme weather—a symptom of a warming world—is driving food and water shortages and is increasing competition for natural resources, displacement of people, surges in pandemic disease outbreaks, and damage to homes and infrastructure. The 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which offers a blueprint for U.S. foreign policy and development aid, ranks curbing climate change as a top strategic priority.

In some ways, this focus is paying off. The Administration’s 2015 foreign-policy victories include the global climate deal reached at the Paris talks in December; a pact among Arctic nations to safeguard that region from the impacts of climate change (a core focus of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Arctic Council chairmanship); and a broadening of efforts to forge multinational deals to monitor and limit ocean warming.

But these and other accomplishments have not yet rescued us from catastrophic warming scenarios. A report by leading scientists sponsored by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative found that we are facing the complete loss of most mountain glaciers and portions of the West Antarctic ice sheet and Greenland ice sheet. Scientists also expect irreversible damage to Southern Ocean and Arctic Ocean fisheries, Arctic permafrost thaw, and, before 2040, the complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice. By midcentury, parts of the Middle East, a recent study found, may become uninhabitable for people without air conditioning. 

Such effects hold grave repercussions for international security, and threaten the very existence of many island nations and coastal communities. In short, they make a pressing to-do list for the next President of the United States.

Diplomats resistant to the notion of the environment as a foreign-policy priority need only look at the mounting evidence that climate change is a common denominator of so much strife and suffering, both within and outside the United States.

Witness the severe droughts in California, Texas, Australia, and Syria, crippling storms and floods in South Carolina and the Philippines, and heavy rains inundating southern India. A recent United Nations report found that weather-related disasters in the past two decades have killed more than 600,000 people; left 4.1 billion people wounded, displaced, or in need of emergency assistance; and inflicted economic losses estimated at trillions of dollars. The researchers warned that the frequency and impact of such events will increase without immediate action to curb climate change. A 2015 Norwegian Refugee Council report reveals that since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes by natural disasters. This is the equivalent of one person being displaced almost every second.

More extreme droughts, floods, and storms are undermining the livelihoods of entire communities, including those that rely on fishing, farming, and herding to make ends meet. According to a World Bank report, climate change could force more than 100 million people in the developing world into extreme poverty by 2030. When extreme weather severely damages natural resources or infrastructure on which local economies depend, families are often forced to find alternative livelihoods elsewhere.

Such forced shifts naturally raise the risk of conflict and instability, especially where the political, economic, or social situation is already tenuous. Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has spawned one of the most severe refugee crises in recent history, started in part due to the impacts of climate change, according to an analysis by the Center for Climate and Security and a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From 2007 to 2010, Syria experienced the worst drought in its recorded history. The climate change-driven drought forced a mass displacement of people within Syria. That, in turn, contributed to the instability that experts say sparked the war.

Displaced people often resettle in cities that lack the capacity to adequately support them. As President Obama noted at a press conference at the Paris climate talks, “There are millions of Syrians who are displaced and living inside of Turkey—not just refugee camps, but they are now moving into major cities throughout Turkey. That puts enormous strains on their infrastructure, on their housing, on employment.” Many experts believe that the refugee crisis in Europe will only worsen, fueled by food and water scarcity brought on by climate change and by increasing conflict in Africa and the Middle East.

We have much to worry about further up north, too. Nowhere on Earth are the geophysical impacts of climate change more evident than in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This has potentially dire consequences for much of the globe. Arctic warming is accelerating global sea level rise and increasing flood risks for nearly three billion people, or the 40 percent of the world’s population that lives near coasts. After his September 2015 visit to Alaskan villages on the verge of sliding into the rising sea, President Obama told Vogue, “[T]he looming crisis in the Alaska Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition.”

Arctic warming is increasing flood risks for nearly three billion people, or the 40 percent of the world population that lives near coasts.

Declining summer sea ice cover in the Arctic is expected to drive more commercial activity there, including shipping, tourism, and natural-resource extraction. This will bring with it both economic opportunities and significant environmental risks. Russia is racing to develop its Arctic oil and gas resources and make new territorial claims in the region—moves that thus far have been lawful. Recent tensions between the United States and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine cast a specter of looming confrontation across the High North. Nonetheless, President Putin recognizes the strategic value of Russian collaboration in the Arctic via the Arctic Council, a forum for the eight Arctic nations to promote sustainable development in the region.

While Shell set aside its U.S. Arctic oil extraction ambitions in late 2015, it and other companies could refocus on Alaskan offshore oil exploration if the oil market rebounds. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that future oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast “brings with it a 75-percent chance of one or more spills of more than 1,000 barrels of oil.”

Although President Obama strengthened U.S. Arctic drilling safety and environmental standards in 2015, the United States lacks the infrastructure and capacity to sufficiently respond to an Arctic oil spill, including adequate roads, a large airport, deep-water ports, and shipyards. Further, the United States has only one functional heavy icebreaker—the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star—that can navigate the Arctic year-round. This vessel is expected to be operational for only a few more years. (The United States also maintains a medium icebreaker, the Healy, that is designed primarily for scientific research.)

These assets pale in comparison to those of other Arctic nations. For example, Russia has 14 government-owned icebreakers, with three more under construction. While an armed Arctic standoff is unlikely, recent Russian incursions into the sovereign territories of Finland, the Baltic states, and Sweden, alongside Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territories, highlight what is at stake.

With so much on the line, the foreign policy, security, and moral imperative for the next President to reduce climate-change threats is clear. The next President can make immediate progress to minimize climate risks by taking the following steps.

Firmly embed climate-change risk management into U.S. foreign policy, development, and security bureaucracies. The QDDR calls on the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to strengthen climate expertise across regional bureaus and integrate climate-change mitigation and resilience throughout diplomacy and development policies, programming, and operations. Nonetheless, progress to implement these recommendations has been slow, and the need to reduce climate-change risks has yet to be woven into the daily mindset and movements of staff across the U.S. diplomacy, defense, and development aid bureaucracies. The next President will need to work quickly to embed climate risk-management strategies into the objectives that drive the daily actions of these personnel across different bureaus, embassies, and missions around the globe.

Building on existing initiatives, the next President will also need to improve our understanding of the intricate connections among climate change, migration, poverty, and national security. This knowledge will help the Administration better target U.S. diplomacy and development assistance to increase the stability and climate resilience of vulnerable countries and protect against humanitarian crises and conflict in the wake of more extreme weather events.

Support resilient, inclusive, and low-carbon development. The next President will also need to rapidly accelerate inclusive, climate-resilient, and low-carbon development to help prevent climate change from unraveling decades of international investments in eradicating global poverty.

The Obama Administration is supporting low-carbon development strategies in two dozen countries, and it is improving conflict early warning and prevention in vulnerable regions. The Administration’s defense, development, and foreign-policy experts are also using state-of-the-art tools to overlay analyses of climate-change vulnerability and political and social instability to flag high-risk areas, and support peacekeeping efforts before incipient crises spiral out of control.

As temperatures climb, the next President will need to do even more to help vulnerable developing nations prepare for the impacts of climate change. Specifically, he or she will need to expand investments in low-carbon and resilient urban infrastructure in the developing world.

It is now clear that certain reflexive modes of aid—such as helping developing countries build new coal-fired power plants, or hospitals, roads, or water infrastructure not designed to stand up to more extreme weather—actually heighten climate-change security risks. The next President thus must refocus scarce development resources, for example, toward water and sanitation systems that can withstand the heavier and more frequent flooding expected to accompany accelerated climate change.

USAID recently developed tools to help city planners design more climate-resilient infrastructure. Those tools have been piloted in only five cities to date—far short of what is needed. The next President must expand this effort. Whoever wins the White House in 2016 will also need to promote strategies to increase the productivity and adaptability of agriculture and food production. Such investments would boost economic growth while protecting local economies and livelihoods in the wake of extreme weather in vulnerable regions. The United States is helping farmers in drought-prone regions, for example, by installing solar irrigation pumps and improving water-use efficiency and seed selection. Such investments must be substantially expanded to improve food security in impoverished and unstable regions threatened by more extreme drought.

Safeguard the Arctic. When Secretary Kerry took on the Arctic Council chairmanship in April 2015, he set a strong agenda to address the impacts of climate change, strengthen Arctic Ocean stewardship, and improve the economic and living conditions of Arctic communities. The next President will need to do even more to curb Arctic warming and support peaceful and sustainable development in the region. For one thing, the next President should ban offshore oil and gas development in the U.S. Arctic until the United States has the capacity, infrastructure, and know-how to respond adequately to an Arctic oil spill. Doing this would allow the next President and Congress time to marshal the resources to build additional icebreakers to close the U.S. emergency-response capacity gap in this remote and harsh region.

The next President should also expand collaboration with Arctic nations and other countries to better understand and manage Arctic warming risks, including the accelerating pace of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic glacier melt, permafrost thaw, changing weather patterns, and impacts on fish stocks and other marine life. He or she could also increase cooperation among Arctic and other nations to protect important marine areas; reduce black carbon (soot) and methane pollution from shipping, oil and gas development, and other sources that accelerate warming in the region and globally; and expand Arctic renewable energy use and super-efficient housing and building designs to strengthen community resilience. By driving more Arctic collaboration, the next President can set a model that counters and discourages irresponsible resource jockeying in the region, while curbing Arctic climate change and promoting peace and sustainable development in the region.

Mobilizing resources to support the above actions, such as building new icebreakers and investing more to reduce climate-change security risks in developing countries, will require congressional support. While securing congressional buy-in and new funds will not be easy, lawmakers from both parties already recognize how woefully underprepared the United States is to manage more commercial activity in the Arctic. In March 2015, Congress passed a budget resolution that establishes a deficit-neutral reserve fund to construct new icebreakers. While the fund is largely symbolic, as no new money was allocated, it received wide support, including unanimous consent by the Senate. In May 2015, Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington introduced legislation that authorizes construction of six icebreakers, but it is still awaiting Senate Armed Services Committee approval. Congress is also waking up to the reality of climate change’s dangerous consequences. In 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee requested a report from the Department of Defense on the national security implications of a changing climate. For lawmakers who oppose environmental laws, highlighting the national security risks of unchecked climate change may be the only way to win their support for strategies to manage these risks.

By taking the above three steps, together with a more ambitious national goal to cut emissions causing climate change, the next President can set a foreign-policy agenda that will reduce the risk of more conflict, migration, and misery in a warming world.

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Read more about Climate ChangeenvironmentForeign Policynational security

Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she specializes in climate change and energy policy, the Arctic, and sustainable development. Kelly served in the Obama Administration at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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