Despite its recent deficiencies in implementing sufficient environmental policies and accepting the reality of climate change, the United States is the country which has in the past perhaps most accurately articulated climate change as a threat to national security interests. Climate change was certainly put in these terms during the Obama administration, between 2009 and 2016, a sentiment that has since been adopted by several nonprofit organisations and think tanks specialising in American foreign policy. As the incumbent Biden administration attempts to place climate change at the centre of its foreign and domestic policy planning, it is worth reintroducing what climate change means in terms of the hazards it poses to the national security of the United States, and imagine what the threats will be in the near future.

In May 2015, then-President Barack Obama delivered a speech to graduating cadets at the US Coast Guard Academy. In his remarks, Barack Obama touched on the main US foreign policy challenges the new graduates would be helping mediate in their careers. Many of these were historically well-trodden national security talking points for presidents, such as maintaining alliances in key regions and countering terrorism and drug smuggling. But Obama also surprised his audience when he described in detail what he believed to be the greatest looming national security threat to the United States: climate change.

He said, “Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune. So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, [and] an immediate risk to our national security.”

This was not the first time in American political history that climate change was equated to a security threat, but it may have been the first time a sitting American president so decisively articulated the idea in a public forum. Climate change and national security have been grouped together by presidents since the Clinton administration, although even then, the climate crisis was not discussed in sufficiently dire terms, and the focus was mostly on economic resilience rather than national security threats.

But the Obama administration made a particular effort to bring climate change to the fore of policy planning, particularly towards the end of his term. In 2015, the White House released a special report as part of the National Security Strategy released that year that designated climate change as a national security threat, citing the impacts of sea level-rise, extreme weather events and rate of glacial melt. The report specifically analysed how terrorist groups that pose a direct threat to the national security of the United States could be fomented and emboldened abroad in the coming years. Food and water insecurity, political instability and poverty were just some of the potential consequences of climate change that could lead to such outcomes. This was an important statement to make, since the country is responsible for the second-highest rate of global CO2 emissions.

However, this progress met a roadblock in the shape of Obama’s successor, Donald Trump.

From when Trump announced his first presidential run in 2016 up to when his successor Joe Biden was inaugurated, the 45th President and his administration were notorious for a dismissive, pro-business and at times denialist attitude towards climate change. In 2017, the administration released a new National Security Strategy. This report removed Obama’s 2015 designation of climate change as a national security threat. The Trump administration shifted national security interests away from climate change, and instead decided to focus more on ‘cyber and electromagnetic attacks.’

Enter Joe Biden. As part of an ambitious series of executive orders on climate policy in his first few days in office, Biden announced a return to the policy stance of the Obama years, declaring climate change a clear and unequivocal threat to national security. He established an effort to create a “National Intelligence Estimate on the security implications of climate change,” and called for the Department of Defense and other federal agencies to wargame and draft plans to make the US more adaptable and resilient in a world marked by temperature rise, climate change and environmental degradation.

As the United States enters a new, and hopefully lasting, era of its climate policy agenda, it is important to understand what these national security threats actually mean. How is and how will climate change affect the national security status of the United States, and is the superpower in a strong position to handle these stressors?

The Security Threat of Sea Level-Rise

For many Americans, sea level-rise may sound like a distant and inconsequential effect of climate change. In reality, rising sea levels pose a direct danger to the stability and functionality of the country’s capacity to defend its borders and its ability to exert power abroad and its global array of military installations. 

“For the United States to remain strong and ready, we must ensure that our military and federal first responder capabilities can withstand and adapt to sea level rise. There isn’t a region in the world where rising seas don’t affect our military readiness and operations, and complicate our ability to do our job.”

This is a statement by Vice Admiral Robert Parker, retired flag officer of the US Coast Guard. Vice Admiral Parker, along with several other retired military experts, co-authored a 2016 report on the risks sea level-rise could pose to the US military and its security interests. The report found that climate and coastline stability were critical factors to whether the US could be able to exert its military presence sufficiently on a global scale. Most US military operations launch from coastlines, and so are vulnerable to sea level-rise, storm surges and flooding that could hinder the capacity for quick response times. Transportation logistics, intelligence and deployment capabilities would be only a few of the critical functions of domestic and overseas military installations to be compromised by sea level-rise.

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united states national security

Image 1: Over 70 US Navy air-to-air combat fighters are stationed at US Naval Air Station Key West in the Caribbean, and provide critical military services and support to U.S. and foreign naval vessels. Flooding is rapidly becoming the norm in Key West, an island with an average elevation of 5 metres above sea level; The Center for Climate and Security; 2016.

An estimated 1 700 Department of Defense military installations lie in coastal areas worldwide. Many of these are homes for thousands of military families and civilian personnel, and they are virtually all vulnerable to sea level-rise. In addition to the human risk and limitations to functionality, rising sea levels will incur a considerable cost on the US military and American taxpayers through maintenance and repair costs, as well as the costs of inoperability and closures. 

The ability of the US military to defend its borders, deter its enemies and support its allies would be severely limited in future climate patterns prone to higher sea levels, sudden storm surges and frequent inundations. US military officials have long prided themselves on their forces’ ability to operate and respond to world events “at a time and place of our choosing.” However, sea level-rise places military bases and agendas at the mercy of nature and an erratic climate, removing much of the implied self-determination of this statement.

Reshaped Geopolitics 

While sea level-rise will curtail the ability of the US military to protect its security interests, climate change is also shifting the spheres of where these interests will be focused. Rapidly accelerating rates of ice melt in the Arctic are creating a veritable new economy in the region, defined by newly traversable sea routes and extractable resources that have so far been entombed in perennial glacial cover.

The changing climatic and environmental circumstances in the Arctic have improved the prospects for the region’s profitability, but have also renewed tensions amongst several states bordering the Arctic Circle. The US is an Arctic state, and its northernmost state of Alaska shares close maritime borders with neighbouring polar nations. Most of these, including Canada and Scandinavian countries, are relatively friendly with the US. But tensions between the two most powerful actors in the Arctic, the United States and Russia, indicate that the region may devolve into a cesspool of geopolitical tensions and national security concerns.

Russia sees an expanding military presence in the Arctic Circle as critical to protecting its own national security interests. Receding sea ice makes Russia’s remote and underdeveloped northern coastline vulnerable to foreign involvement, a risk that is magnified by the fact that less ice cover means that larger ships can traverse the Arctic for longer periods of time throughout the year.

new Arctic shipping routes

Figure 1: Three principal new Arctic shipping routes that could become accessible year-round by larger ships due to glacial melt; Council on Foreign Relations; 2014.

Russia views its position in the Arctic as precarious. Of the eight states that border the Arctic Circle, most are more closely aligned diplomatically and militarily with the US than with Russia. Five Arctic states, including the US, are members of the intergovernmental military alliance NATO, automatically pitting Russia against unfavourable odds should tensions and disputes in the Arctic come to a head. 

These factors have encouraged Russia to militarise the Arctic fast and at scale, a development that has not gone unnoticed by US military officials and the Department of Defense, which has labelled Russia’s military and infrastructural buildup in the Arctic as a potential threat to national security interests. The burgeoning economic alliance between Russia and China in the Arctic has also begun turning heads in Washington, concerned over the strengthening of diplomatic ties between the US’s two principal challengers to global hegemonic status.

So far, the US appears to be taking a more diplomatic and reconciliatory approach towards Arctic affairs. On the topic of Russian activities in the Arctic, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby has said: “we’re watching this, we have national security interests there that we know we need to protect and defend. And as I said, nobody’s interested in seeing the Arctic become militarised.” 

But while the US may prefer to pursue diplomatic and depoliticised discourse in the Arctic, its Navy has been making increasingly regular trips to the Arctic for some years, the first time this had been done since the Cold War. The Trump administration even released a memo demanding a radical buildup of heavy icebreaker ships that the US could station in the Arctic, and the US Congress has mused about establishing a permanent strategic port in the region to counter Russian presence.

A melting Arctic promises to be a source of substantial profit, but also of reignited tensions, hostilities and security concerns. As the two major political and military forces in the region come to a head, with Russia benefiting from the economic backing of China, it appears unlikely that Arctic geopolitical relations will remain predicated upon a mission of scientific cooperation free of security concerns. Climate change exposes areas and borders that were once protected by natural barriers, and our legal and institutional frameworks are currently struggling to keep up with the pace of changing circumstances.

Migration & National Security

Immigration and border security tend to go hand in hand, especially in times of domestic turmoil. In the US, the current crisis at the southern border has been a well-documented, large-scale and oftentimes tragic situation that bodes poorly for how the country may handle the impacts of climate change-induced migrations in the future.

Undocumented immigrations from Latin America to the US across the US-Mexico border have been occurring since at least the the mid-20th century, as waves of political and social instability, violence and deepening poverty and inequality swept over many former European colonies in Central and South America. 

The number of undocumented immigrants currently living in the US is unclear, as many migrants fear disclosing their identities to authorities, but was estimated to be as many as 12 million in 2019, almost 4% of the population. The number of undocumented migrants coming to the US experienced a recent uptick, with around 170 000 detained at the border in March 2021, the largest single-month total in well over a decade. The increase in attempted crossings has been in large part attributed to President Joe Biden’s attempts to roll back his predecessor’s more restrictive border policies, as well as the economic impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America, where over 45 million people were forced into poverty in 2020.

migrant apprehensions

Figure 2: Rise in apprehensions of illegal border crossers and apprehensions between March 2020 and March 2021; Washington Office on Latin America; 2021.

Undocumented immigration to the US has always been a thorny public policy issue, but the political culture and rhetoric surrounding immigration has always been fuelled by the policy of the incumbent administration. Donald Trump employed a largely xenophobic and anti-immigrant approach throughout both his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and his hard-line policies are arguably what won him the former. The Trump administration’s at times draconian response to undocumented immigration has made it a hotly debated issue in the US over the past few years, and reactionary policy responses to the crisis have ranged from the absurdly illogical idea of a border wall to the inhumane detention of children forcibly separated from their families at the border.

In the past, the main reasons and motivations behind undocumented border crossing and asylum-seeking in the US largely came down to unrest and violence in immigrants’ home countries and the economic prospects in the US. Now, climate change is beginning to play an increasingly decisive role in fuelling mass migrations towards the US. Virulent diseases similar to COVID-19 are projected to skyrocket in the future due to climate change and biodiversity loss, creating more public health concerns and economic strife in developing countries prompting people to migrate. Droughts and other extreme weather events caused by climate change are already forcing greater numbers of migrants to relocate, and in many of the tropical Latin American countries that are already politically and economically unstable and poised to suffer the worst from climate change, populations are preparing to move en masse.

In 2020, the economic impacts of the pandemic combined with the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record to force many people to migrate elsewhere. In the fall of 2020, around 10 000 people across Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala began moving north after two particularly devastating Category 4 storms, Eta and Iota, struck central American coastlines. Many more have followed in the months since, given that the storms affected 6 million livelihoods, and the pandemic continues to rage. Haunting images surfaced in January of caravans numbering in the several thousands originating from Honduras and migrating northwards. When these groups attempted to cross into Guatemala, most were forcefully pushed back by the military, offering an indication as to how countries are prepared to deal with climate refugees.

united states national security

Image 2: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Honduras and attempting to reach the US, are stopped by Guatemalan military police near the village of Vado Hondo in January 2021; BBC; 2021.

For the US, climate change will exacerbate the existing border crisis, which has already been woefully mismanaged. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that over one billion people could be displaced due to climate change by 2050. Accurate projections of the number of potential climate refugees that could be seeking asylum in the US do not yet exist, but given that many Latin American countries are highly vulnerable to climate change, the border crisis in the US will presumably amplify significantly over the years and decades to come, placing a severe strain on the US’s ability to protect its interests and address its border security.

As a wealthy country with an abundance of the resources and capital needed to build up resilience against climate change, the question of whether the US could or should accept future waves of climate refugees largely comes down to moral considerations. Developed countries such as the US are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions and the consequential warming that is disrupting livelihoods in poorer countries with minimal carbon footprints. In that sense, the US could be seen as morally responsible for future asylum seekers, and accepting them would be the least the country could do.

Again, we can look at the intricacies of the current border crisis to understand how the US might act in the future. A convincing argument could be made that the US is directly responsible for the waves of migrants currently knocking on its doors, due to the numerous interventions in Latin America that the US forcefully pursued throughout the 20th century. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that American exceptionalism gave the US a morally obligated right to act as an ‘international policing power in Latin America.’ This belief persevered throughout the Cold War, when the US implemented numerous regime changes across the continent to topple rising socialist governments. These interventions left states in tatters and permitted a new brand of authoritarian strongmen to establish unequal societies and corrupt governments under the guise of democracy.

If past US interventions are considered responsible for the creation of the oppressive and pseudo-democratic Latin American governments of today, then the US must also be held responsible for the people who are forced to leave these violent and unstable regimes behind. If the US has been unable to take responsibility for the consequences of its interventions in Latin America, it is doubtful that it would do so for the consequences of its contribution to the climate crisis. 

Regardless of how the US will act, climate change-induced migrations will place an unprecedented strain on its border security and institutions, especially if the political rhetoric surrounding immigration remains as toxic as it is now and does not take into account how climate change drives migrations. The national security threat of mass migrations demonstrates the globality of the climate crisis, and validates President Obama’s words: “Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune.” Climate change is a global crisis, and even if wealthy countries are able to build up domestic resilience, their national security status will be threatened if they neglect protecting poorer nations from the impacts of a changing climate. Placing climate change at the centre of foreign policy planning could be conducive to achieving global resilience and lasting peace.

Climate Change & Extremism

When Obama discussed climate change as a national security threat, serious consideration was given to how it could potentially foment and empower terrorist and militaristic sects overseas. Warming temperatures and extreme weather events causing loss of livelihoods in economies largely dependent on agriculture breeds social and economic instability, and where governments cannot or do not compensate for lost livelihoods, these increasingly fragile societies are the perfect conditions for extremist groups to form.

“When people are hungry, when people are displaced, when there are a lot of young people, particularly young men, who are drifting without prospects for the future, the fertility of the soil for terrorism ends up being significant. And it can have an impact on us.”

President Obama said these words in a 2014 interview with The New York Times. And it is not just loss of livelihoods due to climate change that can lead to extremist groups increasing their reach. Competition and conflict over scarce resources including food and water can expose the divisive ethnic and economic lines in society, perhaps invisible in times of peace and stability, but dangerously laid bare in times of strife and increased scarcity. 

renewable water sources per person

Figure 3: Water resources per person by country in 2014. In African and Middle Eastern countries where climate change has aggravated water scarcity, extremist groups can easily blame the West or governments aligned with Western powers; Data from Food and Agriculture Organization, Image sourced from YaleGlobal Online; 2019. 

Tensions between different ethnic groups and social classes lead to grievances, which lead to domestic turmoil, conflict and uprisings against governments. This is what happened in Syria in 2011, when a prolonged drought between 2006 and 2009 caused by climate change forced rural farmers to move to urban centres, where resource scarcity, competition and ethnic and regional tensions set the stage for the violent uprising and ongoing civil war in the country. The extremist group of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, emerged as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the early 2000s, but only really established itself as a global threat after 2011, when it took advantage of growing instability in Iraq and Syria to carry out more violent attacks, recruit more disenfranchised youth and bolster its ranks.

A common recruitment tactic of terrorist groups is to draw distinctions between themselves and the often failing state government. Terrorist groups depict themselves as sensible and caring organisations, appealing to the nativist interests of the public, while governments are described as evil and corrupt purveyors of destruction and harm. Environmentalism is just one of the many narratives that terrorist groups have co-opted as a recruitment tool. Extremist organisations prey upon nativism and anti-establishment sentiments, describing governments as enablers of foreign intervention, causing deforestation, water and food scarcity and crop failure, while displaying themselves as the custodians and protectors of the environment and native natural capital. 

Following the Middle Eastern drought that preceded the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State offered food rations and a stipend of $400 a month to farmers who had lost their livelihoods due to water scarcity, simultaneously highlighting the government’s inaction. In 2018, the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab banned single-use plastic in territories under their control, citing the risks it posed to the environment, humans and livestock. Several terrorist organisations have enacted community service initiatives aimed at youth, which have included planting trees and cleaning public areas, to build a sense of civic identity and community engagement among potential recruits. In an open letter penned in 2002, Osama bin Laden, former leader of Al-Qaeda and orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks on US soil, vilified and condemned the US for degrading the world’s natural environments, refusing to agree to the Kyoto Protocol and cowering to the interests of polluting businesses and industries.

Of course, extremist groups employing environmental narratives in their rhetoric is essentially greenwashing. It is done to paint governments, especially the US and states allied with it, as purveyors of environmental destruction who are uncaring towards their people’s heartland. It is done to reposition terrorist groups as considerate and nativist organisations who are able to practice better governance than current leaders. This is despite the fact that global terror groups have received over USD$200 billion in funding from the illegal wildlife and charcoal trade, and have purveyed extensive damage to environments and livelihoods worldwide by driving the global arms trade and initiating conflict.

But their message resonates with a very specific and vulnerable audience: people, mostly young men, who feel abandoned and disenfranchised by their governments and are willing to turn to extremism and violence to find a sense of belonging in a rapidly changing world. The US has perhaps been the first to realise and vocalise how extremist terror groups can be emboldened and empowered by climate change, but these groups also pose a direct threat to the security status of nations where they are formed, and to the safety of at-risk youth.

united states national security terrorism

Figure 4: Countries affected by terrorist recruitment of youth; American Enterprise Institute; 2019.

Climate change is a complex and global phenomenon, and neglecting the risks it poses to the national security of the United States or any other country is short-sighted and dangerous governance. If keeping its people safe is the sole prerogative of government, failing to place climate change at the forefront of policy planning means that that government is failing in its mandate. As one of the world’s foremost superpowers, with vast military capabilities and global interests, the United States not only has the resources to significantly mitigate the most severe risks climate change poses to its national security, but it also has much to lose if it fails to do so.

At President Obama’s 2015 speech at the US Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony, he questioned what leadership meant, and addressed why he believed acting on climate change would be the hallmark of true leadership:

“When you’re on deck, standing your watch, you stay vigilant. You plan for every contingency. And if you see storm clouds gathering, or dangerous shoals ahead, you don’t sit back and do nothing. You take action — to protect your ship, to keep your crew safe. Anything less is negligence. It is a dereliction of duty. And so, too, with climate change. Denying it, or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces.”

Featured image by: Flickr