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Will President Obama’s September Call to Action Secure His Climate Legacy?

On September 21, 2016, the White House released a memorandum requiring 20 federal agencies to work together to address the national security implications of climate change. Within 90 days of the release of the memorandum, those 20 agencies need to develop an interagency Climate Change and National Security Action Plan. This is an unprecedented move for the United States, and an important step in addressing climate change in a meaningful and comprehensive way. The next president would be wise to capitalize on the groundwork of this working group by making it a permanent, coordinating body within the executive branch.

Image courtesy of Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard © 2009

Image courtesy of Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard © 2009

The memorandum directs 20 federal agencies, including USAID, the Departments of Defense, State, Agriculture, Interior, and Commerce, and other major departments and agencies involved in national security, the economy, and natural resources, to form a Climate and National Security Working Group. This group is tasked with strengthening research, data collection, and information sharing on climate change, as well as developing concrete, agency-specific plans for addressing security challenges related to climate change within the scope of their work.

This memorandum was released on the same day as a new, unclassified report from the U.S. Intelligence Community outlining the security implications of climate change, clearly outlining the challenges this working group must confront. The report identifies six pathways by which climate change threatens national security:

  • Threats to the stability of countries
  • Heightened social and political tensions
  • Adverse effects on food prices and availability
  • Increased risks to human health
  • Negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness
  • Extreme and unanticipated changes in regional climate

According to the report, extreme weather will be the biggest source of climate threats within the next five years, with typhoons, flooding, and droughts expected to increase in severity and frequency. Such extreme weather can disrupt any nation, but it is a particular threat to underdeveloped nations that lack the infrastructure and resources to deal with the humanitarian challenges extreme weather poses. The United States military will be increasingly tasked with responding to environmental disasters in these countries, while at the same time the U.S. economy is stressed by such impacts at home.

Climate change is already exacerbating geopolitical tensions around the world. The arctic circle is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and is increasingly ice-free for much of the year, opening up the region for trade, tourism, and resource exploration. Territorial competition in the area is straining tensions between Russia and other arctic nations as they each seek to claim increasingly accessible and potentially resource-rich areas of the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, increased international tensions are hindering search-and-rescue and security services in the region.

Rising sea levels and other climate-induced systemic changes will have an increasingly severe impact as well over the next few decades. Sea level rise and changes in precipitation will displace communities in low-lying areas. Indeed, some communities have already discussed moving. In addition to helping these communities find new homes and livelihoods, the loss of arable land and infrastructure will be a great drain on the world economy.

In the face of such a grave and seemingly inexorable challenge, building an interagency coalition to address its effects is an essential first step and likely to become an important part of President Obama’s legacy. The target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will almost certainly not be met, so it is critical that we adapt and respond to the climate change that is occurring, rather than just aiming to mitigate the amount of climate change that will occur. The fact that the 90-day deadline given for the group to develop an action plan ends just before President Obama leaves office is likely not a coincidence.

The presidential memo and recently released intelligence report increase the pressure for action by emphasizing that climate change is not simply an environmental or humanitarian issue, but one that will have profound effects on our economy and security. Rather than viewing climate change as tertiary after national security and continued economic growth, it should be viewed as essential for national security and continued economic growth.

Climate change cannot be addressed by each agency unilaterally. Climate science itself is a highly complex and nuanced field, with accurate models requiring precise data across government agencies and the scientific community. The impact of climate on human systems is all the more complex, and it is only with each agency sharing its relevant data and expertise with the others that a complete picture of climate change’s impact on U.S. interests can be understood and anticipated.

Effective solutions to climate threats will require close interagency coordination. For example, effectively promoting energy security in the United States and abroad requires cooperation between the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, USAID, the Department of State, the Department of the Interior (responsible for energy resources on federal lands), the Department of Agriculture (manages biofuels), and the Department of Defense (a major and high priority consumer of energy).

By creating potentially long-term plans for interagency collaboration on climate and national security, this presidential memorandum will be an important part of President Obama’s climate legacy. However, this process should not be a one-time endeavor. Our understanding of climate change and the stresses it puts on human systems will continue to evolve. Our plans for confronting it must evolve as well. The next administration should make the Climate and National Security Working Group a permanent body that meets regularly to exchange information, best practices, and innovative ideas across the federal government and regularly revise plans for interagency coordination in order to remain responsive to the climate security challenges facing the United States.


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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