Sorry, Biden: There Is No “National Security” Solution to the Climate Crisis

The Biden administration is turning to agencies like the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to shore up climate action.

Sarah Lazare

President Joe Biden meets with his national security team for an operational update on the situation in Afghanistan on August 22, 2021 at the White House in Washington, DC. The White House via Getty Images

On October 21, the Biden administration released a suite of reports aimed at showing how climate change poses a national security” threat, and how institutions like the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security plan to respond. The analyses are meant to demonstrate a commitment to action: A statement from the White House proclaims that the reports will serve as a foundation for our critical work on climate and security moving forward.” As the president’s own civilian climate change provisions in the Build Back Better package were being gutted, the report sent the message that national security institutions can still move a climate agenda forward — a message timed for just 10 days before the United Nations climate negotiations known as COP26.

Yet, a close read of the reports shows exactly why we should never turn to national security” institutions to address a crisis that is fundamentally global, requiring solidaristic action that transcends nationalism. Taken together, the analyses paint a grim picture of a future where, in the face of mass displacement, water shortages, hunger and death, the U.S. response amounts to hunkering down and protecting its military mission, its dominance and its alliances against geopolitical foes. While the reports call for some liberal reforms to migration policy in light of climate displacement, those reforms are relatively small-scale, and fail to fully grapple with the climate harms the United States has inflicted — and the reparations it owes. Most troubling, the reports take the ravages of climate change as a given, and merely focus on how to protect U.S. national security” in light of that inevitability. This finding gives more evidence that the institutions which oversee wars and deportations will never be the ones to take on the fossil fuel industry — and, as a result, a militarized climate response is no replacement for a civilian one.

Significant sections of the report from the Department of Defense are classified, so it is difficult to know the full scope of the Pentagon’s climate plans. But what was released is an eerie description of how droughts, famines and water shortages will affect the world — and how the U.S. military must take steps to continue its mission amid these hazards. The risks of climate change to Department of Defense (DoD) strategies, plans, capabilities, missions, and equipment, as well as those of U.S. allies and partners, are growing,” the report warns. (Never mind the people who happen to live in countries that are not allies of the United States — and are often subject to brutal sanctions — who are being hit hard by climate change, from Iran to Venezuela to North Korea.) Rather than looking at how climate change affects humanity on a global scale, a map aimed at illustrating these coming challenges instead examines how it affects the global U.S. military presence.

The DoD response is almost entirely concerned with maintaining the ability to do everything the DoD has always done, likely in all the same places it has always been,” Lindsay Koshgarian, the program director of the National Priorities Project, a research organization, tells In These Times. To achieve this continuity of mission, the report says the Pentagon needs funding in support of exercises, wargames, analyses, and studies of climate change impacts on DoD missions, operations, and global stability.” Left unsaid is that further entrenchment of U.S. military institutions will only worsen the impacts of the climate crisis. Not only is the U.S. military a worse carbon polluter than 140 countries, but it is also the inflictor of global violence, which should be opposed in its own right.

Of course, the Pentagon is only ever going to view itself as the solution to international crises. As the saying goes, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Ramón Mejía, an anti-militarism organizer with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, puts it plainly: The U.S. wants to continue the mission of global hegemony.” But this is precisely the problem. Shouldn’t the shared hazards of climate change, that represent millions of human deaths and large-scale displacement and suffering, be grounds for reimagining the U.S. role in the world? Why should the U.S. military carry on as-is in the face of such devastating crises? There must be something better we could be doing with such vast, world-stretching resources. The report’s text about the national security” challenges posed by climate change illustrate the bleak absurdity of a militarized approach to climate change:

In the Indo-Pacific, sea-level rise and more extreme weather events complicate the security environment, place key DoD warfighting infrastructure and surrounding communities at risk, and challenge local capacity to respond. For example, the United States has important defense assets located in Guam, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, all of which are vulnerable to these hazards. Additionally, competitors such as China may try to take advantage of climate change impacts to gain influence.

To be clear, climate change and resultant rising sea levels threaten to entirely submerge or destroy these islands, the horrors of which should not be measured according to how this affects U.S. military assets, or how China may try to exploit it, but according to the homes, communities and cultures that will be lost. Imagine a similar report that looks at how mass death caused by climate change affects the business prospects of Walmart, or 7-Eleven. The obvious rejoinder is, Why should we care, and why do their interests take priority?” The same test should apply to the U.S. military.

Inadvertently, these reports end up making a strong case against the moral soundness of of the institutions that issued them. The report from the National Intelligence Council, tasked with providing an overview of intelligence on climate threats, provides a list of 11 countries of great concern from the threat of climate change.” As Koshgarian notes, this reads like a scorecard of U.S. military intervention. Three of the 11 countries are sites of the U.S. forever wars (Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan); others have been subject to past U.S. military occupation or other military intervention (Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia), and then there’s North Korea, which we have sanctioned virtually into oblivion.” (The list also includes Burma and India.)

The report’s findings are bleak. Given current government policies and trends in technology development, we judge that collectively countries are unlikely to meet the Paris goals because high-emitting countries would have to make rapid progress toward decarbonizing their energy systems by transitioning away from fossil fuels within the next decade,” the report states.

What is owed

Among those high-emitting countries is the United States, which is among the top per capita carbon emitters in the world. (The U.S. contribution to climate change is even worse when one considers its historical emissions.) A report from the National Security Council outlines the havoc this continued status quo will unleash. Extreme weather, famine, and climate-change-fueled conflict will uproot people from their homes, particularly in the Global South, where the effects will be felt most acutely and rapidly. Climate change could cause almost 3 percent of the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America to be internally displaced by 2050, amounting to more than 143 million people. There is a strong case to be made that the United States owes a great deal to those whose lives will be upended. The question of how these migrants will be treated is of serious concern: Will military empires like the United States fortress their borders and respond to displaced people with closed doors and military repulsion, or will nations find a way extend open arms during a shared global crisis, though it is disproportionately driven by wealthy nations and borne by the Global South?

The report does call for some liberal reforms that, if implemented, could potentially provide some degree of relief. It recommends that the White House work with Congress to create a new legal pathway for individualized humanitarian protection in the United States for individuals facing serious threats to their life because of climate change.” It also calls for increased investments in resilience-building measures and local climate adaptation efforts,” arguing that marginalized communities must be included in such measures from the inception.” Such changes could potentially do some good, but the specifics are important, as is the broader political context: If such refugees face a more robust and fortified U.S. military and border apparatus, a new legal status for climate refugees on paper might be of little help.

But other sections of the report are downright dystopian. One section is worth publishing in-full:

Climate change driven migration will likely cause migrants to desire to emigrate to the nearest stable democracies that adhere to international asylum conventions and have strong economies. Many of these countries are U.S. allies/​partners and many have experienced waves of migration. Many countries that adjoin destination countries have experienced domestic instability as migrant populations increase along destination country borders (Greece/​Turkey, UK/​France, Spain/​Morocco, Italy/​Libya, Syria/​Jordan/​Lebanon, and U.S./Mexico). Climate change related migration could cause greater instability among U.S. allies/​partners and thereby cause a relative strengthening in adversary states. In addition, adversaries could incite or aid irregular migration to destabilize U.S. allies/​partners.

It is morally unconscionable to measure the value of climate policy according to how it could potentially strengthen adversary states” under some hypothetical future scenario, particularly where that scenario involves droughts, large-scale crop failures, floods, and mega-storms, for which the United States bears a great deal of responsibility. To put it mildly, such framing fails to grapple with what the United States owes those forced to seek refuge. Such an approach is especially alarming because it is virtually impossible to curb the climate crisis without cooperation between the United States and its adversary states,” particularly China, which is the worst overall greenhouse gas emitter. In July, dozens of environmental and social justice organizations wrote an open letter pleading with the Biden administration and Congress to eschew the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations and instead prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy, and cooperation with China to address the existential threat that is the climate crisis.”

What is owed, right now, is every effort to stem the climate crisis. While a certain amount of climate change is already irreversible, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in August, says the worst-case scenarios can still be prevented by dramatically curbing carbon emissions through an immediate stop to fossil fuel extraction. Anything over a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius will bring extreme and severe storms, droughts, famines, starvation and death. It is still possible to keep warming below this threshold, a reality that is not acknowledged in the reports. The reports describe a wide array of scary national security and geopolitical threats that are increasing or arising because of climate change, from food and water shortages, to interstate tensions over climate action itself, to climate-exacerbated migration, and more,” says Koshgarian. The only rational response to these real threats is to take immediate action to mitigate climate change, and mitigate the threats, but the reports are written as if the worst effects of climate change are unavoidable.”

The U.S. national security state is like a doctor administering palliative care for one very rich cancer patient — in this case, the U.S. military and its close allies — without investing money or energy into curing cancer, or treating any other patients. It’s not concerned with finding a cure (reversing climate change) or engaging in equitable treatment (paying meaningful reparations to poor countries harmed by climate change). It’s only concerned with making life manageable for its client: military bases, overseas Western corporations, trade routes, etc. Do we then celebrate this doctor acknowledging the existence of cancer? It’s a low bar, and given what the GOP offers (climate denialism), it’s understandable. But no one should be under any illusions that this is a robust effort to take on the scourge of climate chaos.

The release of these analyses together is being touted by the Biden administration, and major media outlets, as a significant step in the fight against climate change. They mark the first time that the nation’s security agencies collectively communicated the climate risks they face,” notes the New York Times. But as world leaders prepare to gather in Glasgow for the COP26 talks, U.S. promises of a national security” response to climate change are no replacement for real civilian action — and could make the suffering caused by climate change even worse. 

The good news is that there is no shortage of civilian actions being proposed. The most sweeping possibilities for a Green New Deal could include public takeover of utilities, a just transition for all workers in the fossil fuel economy, a revamping of public transportation, a shutdown of the fossil fuel industry, a slew of anti-poverty programs aimed at beating back the power of capital, and climate reparations. At minimum, any climate policy must be housed in civilian institutions: The U.S. national security apparatus is fundamentally opposed to the solidarity and internationalism needed to combat the climate crisis. 

Still, the reality on the civilian front is bleak: The climate provisions in Biden’s Build Back Better package, already too meager from the outset, look to be significantly defanged, prompting acts of civil disobedience and hunger strikes among U.S. protesters. But if Biden wants to make sure he heads to Glasgow with something to show, there’s plenty he could do immediately: for example, exercise his executive power. As Basav Sen writes, Executive branch agencies can end leasing for oil and gas drilling on federal lands and in federal waters. They can stop issuing permits for new fossil fuel projects such as pipelines, refineries, petrochemical facilities and export terminals. They can revoke permits that were issued without adequate consideration of their dangers.”

Vows to pursue a national security” response are not an alternative to such policies. Some U.S.-based activists are planning to travel to Glasgow to deliver this message. Among them is Mejía, of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. Trying to address climate change through the military isn’t helpful,” says Mejía. Just because climate change is recognized as a problem doesn’t mean the solution will be equitable. The military is a false solution.”

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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