Risk assessment: Thoughts on ‘a climate security plan for America’

“A Climate Security Plan for America”, if it had been covered by the press, could actually make a difference in changing the minds of some in the political center more inclined to believe the U.S. military than scientists or activist groups.


With climate change increasingly recognized as the long term global threat it is, it’s surprising that when sixty-four senior U.S. military, national security and intelligence leaders, including a former director of NASA, released “A Climate Security Plan for America” produced for the non-partisan Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), it wasn’t really covered in the U.S. press.

Though the subtitle to the document is ‘A Presidential plan for combating the security risks of climate change’, considering that the country’s current president and the party he represents are unapologetic in denying the science at the heart of the issue, it’s less surprising that it’s warnings have fallen on deaf ears in the White House.

The plan, first made public on September 24th, has “four pillars of action” that also act as chapter headings for the text; they are, 1) for the United States to demonstrate leadership on climate change and associated issues, 2) assess the risks involved, 3) support allies in addressing it and 4) to prepare for and, where possible, prevent, the likely impacts of it.

As the authors of the report explain at the beginning of the text, “The plan should incorporate the philosophy that the unprecedented risks of climate change coupled with unprecedented foresight underline a responsibility to prepare for unavoidable climate security risks and to prevent unacceptable climate security risks in the future.”

What is most interesting about this is not just the seriousness of the language but the idea presented throughout the text that U.S. military and intelligence agencies have ‘unprecedented foresight’ in determining the risks associated with climate change. In general, when the issue is discussed at all in the public sphere, it’s usually presented as unfathomable and unpredictable, ideas which the wildfires that have become a normal part of life in California and have forced millions to live without power for days at a time this fall (although this is also an example of why corporate monopolies over vital infrastructure are so dangerous) should put to rest once and for all.

Under the heading “Assessing Climate Risks” the idea of foresight is discussed in more detail, with the report’s authors writing, “Consider, for instance, the first accurate climate change model is from 1967, a half a century ago, and for the most part, the climate is changing as the model predicted. …Strikingly, where inaccuracies have occurred, they have often been characterized by an underestimation of the rate and severity of climate change, showing a milder picture than what eventually emerged.”

While the authors go on to note that such models and the ability to predict from them is obviously limited, it does seem odd that it isn’t considered big news that the U.S. military has known about the possible consequences of climate change for 50 years and hasn’t really raised the alarm until now.

Much of the early part of the document is spent on what would seem like normal calls to take the climate crisis seriously by creating new positions within the military, homeland security, department of energy, office of the Director of National Intelligence and other agencies to ensure that the issue is always on the table when making plans and allocating budget resources.

The report also calls on the UN and other international associations like the G7 and the African Union that the US participates in or can influence to put in place experts on climate change to drive these institutions to work collectively on limiting their contributions to the global threat and jointly investing in more sustainable technologies and infrastructure.

The report also demands that the U.S. president rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, stating the obvious that the pulling out, “…has exacted a cost in stature and leadership, posturing the U.S. as something of a rogue nation on the world stage, and for no gain – not least as all Paris commitments are voluntary.”

Due to its ‘security’ focus, some of the report has to do with the geostrategic implications of a changing climate, occasionally turning its focus to rival nations like Russia and China. In the case of both, but especially the former, one subsection concentrates on the economic opportunities the leadership of these countries sees in a warming Arctic. Less obvious, in the case of the People’s Republic of China, the point is made that warming waters are changing the patterns of fish stocks, both incentivizing the country to expand its territorial waters through the acquisition of small island outposts and making the country move further into other country’s territories in search of these resources, not the framing we are used to seeing in discussions of the South China Sea.

At the same time, in regards to China, the authors see that country’s Belt and Road initiatives as doing a better job to address the issues presented by climate change to allies and potential partners than the United States government is, writing, “China is already expanding its influence by doing just that – embracing the climate goals of U.S. allies, providing direct and tangible assistance to climate-vulnerable nations, and securing influence and economic gains through clean energy investments.”

Other issues addressed, such as the risks to critical infrastructure, would probably be of more interest to ordinary American (and other concerned) citizens. Unfortunately, true to its focus, when it does address this, the plan mainly talks about civilian infrastructure in the context of how it might impact U.S. military readiness and the country’s ability to project power overseas.

The text is clearer when dealing with the risks to military infrastructure, in a subsection discussing what the authors call a Climate Security Infrastructure Initiative, the risks that the report’s authors see going forward due to climate change on the country’s military are made clear, “In the last year, DoD installations sustained over $8 billion in damage from extreme weather – extreme weather that climate change makes increasingly likely. At the same time, sea-level rise is making recurring flooding more common in coastal communities and at coastal bases, and wildfire season is no longer confined to one season, or one geography.”

Perhaps because the U.S. military is not beholden to the same corporate interests that most media and associated centers of power like think tanks are, it’s possible for some in leadership to take the very real dangers of climate change into account, making them unlikely allies in the battle to force governments to take action. At the same time, no admission is made in the text of the obvious fact that the U.S. military is the largest polluter in the world and a large driver of climate change in its own right.

Nonetheless, the document does call on the president in no uncertain terms to begin to really address the problem, “Based on the national security implications alone, the President should embrace an all-of-the-above Climate Security Prevention Policy to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions both in the U.S. and globally at a scale necessary for avoiding the catastrophic security consequences of current plausible emissions pathways, including worst-case scenarios. That means both significantly reducing U.S. emissions, demonstrating leadership to ensure that global emissions are rapidly reduced to avoid catastrophic security scenarios, and accelerating the research, development, techniques, and technologies in diverse fields from energy production and storage to agriculture, forestry, and beyond needed to ensure that net global emissions are reduced.”

While many of us may not like the often militaristic language and arguments for American exceptionalism found throughout the text, documents like “A Climate Security Plan for America”, if it had been covered by the press, could actually make a difference in changing the minds of some in the political center more inclined to believe the U.S. military than scientists or activist groups.

It’s yet another irony of our time that it will be up to these same activists to spread its message to a wider public.


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