Future Tense

The U.S. Needs to Radically Redefine What Falls Under “National Security”

Joe Biden rests his chin in his hand.
President Joe Biden Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A version of this article originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology.

On Jan. 27, 2021, in one of its first executive orders, the Biden administration requested a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, on the “national and economic security impacts of climate change.” Addressing this complex issue provided an opportunity to broaden the concept of national security—and a chance to “reimagine American foreign policy and national security for the next generation,” as the president said when first introducing his national security team.

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Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040,” which was published in October 2021, recognizes that climate change presents challenges to national security, that geopolitical tensions will grow over efforts to reduce emissions, and that the effects of climate change will “exacerbate cross-border geopolitical flashpoints.” But it looks through the proverbial keyhole: The basic narrow picture is accurate, but vital information and perspectives are missing. This approach to climate change evokes an earlier age when national security’s near-exclusive focus involved defending the United States against external threats, an approach that assumes international and zero-sum competition.

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The NIE’s key takeaway is that climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to U.S. national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge. For instance, it warns about potential miscalculation over strategic competition in the Arctic and the risks of climate effects destabilizing countries. A last paragraph in the report notes that the state of science is still unable to adequately answer the question of “when a given component of either the regional or global climate system will approach or pass a tipping point, an area of high importance given the risks associated with it. …” The traditional geopolitical framing of the climate NIE reflects the limits of current conceptions of security. A policymaker reading the document—and most people reading it are policymakers and other experts—could easily come away with the sense that the biggest climate change-related challenges are global competition for economic dominance in the warming Arctic and the possibility that a country might unilaterally deploy geoengineering.

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But there are at least as consequential things already happening that need our attention. The NIE doesn’t mention that reduction of the Greenland ice sheet, for instance, occurred more rapidly than expected with potentially catastrophic economic and ecological consequences for the world. And it doesn’t address the implications for human security of such faster-than-expected changes already evident in the biosphere. (The issue of potentially significantly faster-than-expected melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the West and East Antarctic glaciers is mentioned in an Annex titled “Events That Would Change Our Assessment.”)The NIE acknowledges that the intelligence community has “low to moderate confidence in assessing how climate change effects could cascade in ways that affect US national security interests … given the complex dimensions of human and state decision-making and the challenge of connecting climate, weather, and sociopolitical models.” Such systemic risks, however, can be addressed through a wider and more interdisciplinary lens in forward-looking ways that can help nonscientists better understand the immediacy and enormity of the ecological crisis and why a traditional geopolitical approach is insufficient. But this would require a different scope and approach for the NIE, which in turn requires redefining “national security.”

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The report explicitly acknowledges its narrow scope, but it fails to recognize that such a restricted framing of the topic itself creates an inherent security risk. In this way, the NIE is an example of the perils of excessively relying on the military and defense framing of “security” that have characterized the U.S. national security sector since the end of World War II.

And although the NIE acknowledges that higher temperatures and loss of biodiversity will increase human health risks, it makes no mention of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public is accustomed to hearing about the pandemic and climate change as different issues involving different experts, impacts, and audiences—but in fact they are related phenomena. Pandemics, like climate change, generally stem from human-caused, or anthropogenic, environmental degradation due to economic activities, such as deforestation and urban sprawl, that destroy natural habitats and bring humans and wildlife into closer contact. The novel coronavirus, for instance, is generally believed to have involved a zoonotic transmission of a virus from an animal to a human host, like many viruses before that caused diseases such as influenza, Ebola, West Nile fever, and SARs. As such, climate change and many epidemics or pandemics are increasingly manifestations of vulnerabilities in interconnected natural and human systems that reveal important new security realities.

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These new security realities include the Earth’s inability to support unbounded economic growth without destroying the web of living systems that have made human civilization possible, a profound contradiction at the heart of mainstream economics with implications for every child today. Such dynamics cannot be captured by a state-centric analysis. As if to warn us of climate change’s still greater dangers, COVID-19 has triggered global economic contractions, reversal of international development gains, greater vulnerabilities for girls in low-income countries, and tremendous upsets to supply chains, which are all still roiling the world. And the crisis has exposed and exacerbated security-related vulnerabilities and inequities that weaken society’s capacity for resilience.

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The experience of the pandemic suggests that national security should be reframed to prioritize global public health in an age of growing climate disruptions. Climate change and environmental breakdown contribute to recurrent disease outbreaks, including pandemics. These effects challenge societal resilience, threatening to overwhelm local economic resources, public safety, food and water security, and health care infrastructure. Such factors inevitably will affect nations’ and communities’ resources and their abilities to adapt to climate change. International cooperation around the subject of global public health, and enhanced investments in precautionary and preventive approaches, as means of pandemic preparedness, will be essential to human, national, and economic security in a world disrupted by climate change. The emergence and spread of new mutations of the novel coronavirus, including the omicron variant, and its relationship to disparities in vaccine availability and acceptance, are yet another reminder of this important aspect of security.

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The NIE also assumes, problematically, that climate change-amplified risks will increase gradually over time. A chart on the first page of the document, for example, projects the geopolitical “risks to US interests through 2040” as increasing in a progressive way. This belies the potential for highly disruptive nearer-term risks emanating from converging crises, such the prospect of extreme weather events causing global disruptions in food, energy, or medicine.

Although it is difficult to capture the notion of abrupt change in charts that are linear by design, the NIE’s framing implies a steadily building emergency that progresses in a logical, step-by-step fashion—a characterization at odds with nonlinear and potentially more abrupt climate change scenarios. Fundamentally, this perspective fails to capture the immediacy and unpredictability of abrupt departures from normal climatic patterns.

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Another limit of the climate NIE, and current concepts of security more generally, is its focus on potential state-based strategic competition and relative lack of attention to systemic risks in human and ecological systems. For example, although the report highlights the dangers of food insecurity, it overlooks instances in the last decade when localized climate events, including droughts, floods, and wildfires, affected global commodities networks. Linkages among local, regional, and global phenomena make it potentially misleading to characterize a single country’s adaptability to climate change without reference to the complex international web of transboundary interdependencies.

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For instance, the NIE says that “Egypt is less exposed to climate effects than many countries.” But that seems to overlook other analyses as well as recent experience. In 2010, high rainfall in Canada and drought and bushfires in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan contributed to unexpected spikes in global market prices of wheat, an imported commodity that Egypt relies on heavily. Higher bread prices aggravated discontent, and political protests soon coalesced into the Arab Spring movement. Although the Arab Spring sparked first in Tunisia, it quickly moved to Egypt in early 2011 in what was a major strategic surprise for the United States and global institutions.

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And as security is reconceived, young people’s rights, perspectives, and needs deserve special consideration. As of mid-2020, children under 15 made up about one-quarter of the world’s population. In a recent survey of 10,000 young people between 16 and 25 years old in 10 countries, more than half reported being very or extremely worried about climate change, as well as experiencing feelings of anger, sadness, and guilt. Climate change and society’s failure to act are creating feelings of deep insecurity in youth—feelings that have potentially profound implications for governments.

Concerns about the mental health of young people rarely enter into traditional national security priorities, but current framings may lead to the vilification of climate activists by criminalizing their advocacy for their own security. Young people involved in nonviolent direct actions such as road blockages, civil disobedience, or mobilizing more support are sometimes—and perhaps increasingly—seen as security threats themselves. The Indian government, for example, has invoked a colonial-era sedition law against 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi. Similar prosecutions elsewhere are creating new security dynamics involving international and intergenerational tensions.

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Looking broadly at the security implications of climate change will require a much wider lens than the intelligence community has traditionally used. A state-centric frame of analysis may not even be appropriate when unprecedented ecological realities are bearing down on the security and livability of human societies now and in the future. Understanding the physical, social, ecological, and political impacts of climate change requires more deliberate consideration of global interdependencies between natural and manmade systems—and between the countries of the world. As environmental security researcher Simon Dalby has observed, “for much of the history of the rise of European power and the subsequent extension of its mode of economy to encompass most of the world in the processes of globalization, [Western and U.S. national] security has been about maintaining this social order.” This is no longer good enough.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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