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Global warming is at the forefront of the new U.S. national security strategy

President Joseph Biden stands at a podium in front of the emblem of the U.S. Department of Defense -- a replica of The Pentagon building.
Image Credit: Flickr/U.S. Secretary of Defense

On Wednesday, October 12, the White House released its long-awaited national security strategy. As the U.S. battles more and more climate-induced natural disasters, putting climate change at the forefront of national security couldn’t come at a better time.

“The climate crisis is the existential challenge of our time,” the authors of the strategy wrote.

“A warming planet endangers Americans and people around the world—risking food and water supplies, public health, and infrastructure, and our national security," according to the new U.S. policy. "Without immediate global action to reduce emissions, scientists tell us we will soon exceed 1.5 degrees of warming, locking in further extreme heat and weather, rising sea levels, and catastrophic biodiversity loss.”

As the time frame between now and the 2050 target set by the Paris Climate Agreement shrinks, numerous climate change and security assessments have pointed out where the two converge, such as a 2021 report by the National Intelligence Council.

The report points out the physical threat climate change poses to instability and internal conflict in countries most affected by outcomes like extreme weather, hurricanes, sea level rise, glacial melt, and droughts.

It also underscores what the aftermath of these threats – mass migration for example – will demand from U.S. economic, humanitarian, and military resources, and the effects transitioning away from fossil fuels will have on the international economy and conflict landscape.

The new strategy tackles the issue from the same global perspective, positing that the U.S. is open to cooperating on shared challenges with economic competitors like China. According to the White House Fact Sheet, these shared challenges are not limited to climate change and include food insecurity, communicable diseases, and inflation.

The strategy outlines an intent to tackle climate and energy insecurity from a two-track approach, engaging with all countries and institutions willing to cooperate and bolstering efforts to deepen cooperation with like-minded partners, putting an emphasis on competition, in what it calls a “race to the top.”

Pointing to the effects already felt by the Inflation Reduction Act, this strategy will likely inform future legislation around efforts to reduce emissions, tackle methane and other super pollutants, promote carbon dioxide removals, adapt climate’s most severe impacts, and “end deforestation over the next decade.”

It highlights the 2021 agreement with the European Union to address the carbon intensity and global overcapacity in the famously hard-to-decarbonize steel and aluminum industries.

The agreement, which is scheduled to conclude this time next year, sets up participants (within and outside of the U.S. and E.U.) to facilitate trade in steel and aluminum that meet low-carbon intensity standards. This agreement will serve as a model for future climate-focused trade mechanisms.

“We are enhancing Federal, state, and local preparedness against and resilience to growing extreme weather threats,” the document reads, “and we’re integrating climate change into our national security planning and policies.”

According to the strategy, the U.S. will end public finance for unabated coal power and mobilize financing to speed investments in adaptation and the energy transition. Unabated coal power refers to the use of coal power that is not mitigated with technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, such as carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). While the IRA begins to tackle the latter of these goals, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that this year, natural gas and coal outputs in the U.S. remain set to reach record highs.

The document also draws a stark connection between Russia’s war against Ukraine and the urgent need to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, asserting that energy security depends on renewables to decrease dependence on hostile regimes.

Thus, it points to global alliances as necessary to “​​secure access to critical mineral supply chains, and create a just transition for impacted workers,” as well as the mitigation and adaptation assistance it aims to provide to low-income and lower-middle-income countries. Notably, the administration aims to provide over $11 billion in annual climate funding and is “pressing” partners to increase their contributions.

Specifically, the strategy touts that it will “support climate adaptation, conservation, and a just energy transition” in Sub-Saharan Africa as the region’s climate impacts coincide with migration, food, and land use issues. Support will come in the form of “accelerating growth in private sector investment” for the continent’s digital economy and clean energy infrastructure, and bolstering U.S.-Africa trade.

Separately, the strategy dedicates a section to maintaining a peaceful Artic, underscoring an intent to mitigate climate change in the region through agreements to reduce emissions, more cross-Arctic

research collaboration, and an upholding of Tribal sovereignty and both consultation and collaboration with Alaska Native communities.

A separate Artic National Strategy report offers further details on the intent to consult, coordinate and co-manage with these tribes and communities, but it’s yet to be shown how specifically federal agencies will allocate these resources.

While the strategy claims that the administration is embedding climate change into investment strategies, international and regional, these aims will be tested in future domestic legislation and at COP27 where the conversation on loss and damage reparations for climate change and the global north’s unhonored climate finance pledge will undoubtedly take center stage.

As Andrew Freedman of Axios points out, the last time climate change played such a prominent role in a national security strategy was in the Obama administration’s 2015 strategy. Instead of existential, the 7-year-old strategy described it in the less dire terms of “urgent. and growing.” Still, as the prominence of climate threats only grows, the new national security strategy will be imperative in shaping future policy and action.

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