On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed a suite of executive orders on climate policy, including one that enshrines climate change as a key consideration for American foreign policy and national security.
The order’s international directives indicate a departure from the climate denialist policies of the Trump administration, with promises to convene an international climate summit this coming Earth Day, begin crafting new emission reduction targets for the U.S. as it rejoins the Paris Agreement, and to prepare the country to join an international agreement to phase out of hydrofluorocarbons, which are some of the most potent greenhouse gases on Earth. It even directs the government to eliminate international finance for fossil fuels, an important move climate organizers have been demanding for years. More broadly, Biden also calls for all other agencies to prioritize the climate crisis in their international work.
Integrating climate concerns into all of the federal government’s actions is a welcome approach (and a sure sign that the Biden administration is reading Earther). Prioritizing the climate crisis in foreign policy is particularly important, since it’s a global problem. But teeing it up as a national security issue could lead to a militarized response to the climate crisis, raising the risk for further instability both in the U.S. and abroad.
“If we’ve learned anything from the covid crisis this year, it’s that these transnational, actorless threats pose just as much harm to U.S. national security as foreign militaries,” Erin Sikorsky, deputy director at the Center for Climate and Security who served on the National Intelligence Council, said. “And so you need to use all arms of the national security apparatus to, to manage that and understand that it integrated into the work.”
But though the climate crisis is not the fault of any single person or entity, it is not exactly actorless. The U.S. is responsible for more historical greenhouse gas pollution than any other country, and is currently the second largest emitter after China. The country’s military is the largest institutional greenhouse gas polluter in the world and largest consumer of fossil fuels in the federal government, using as much oil and gas as the entire country of the Netherlands.
To draw down the military’s climate impact, the executive order calls on all government agencies, including the Department of Defense, to “procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles,” building on another executive order Biden signed this week.
“When you’re talking about the federal government footprint, of course the Pentagon and the Department of Defense are a huge part of that footprint, so if they have to follow those provisions, that’s huge,” Sikorsky said.
Neta Crawford, a political scientist at Boston University who authored a groundbreaking 2019 report on the military’s gargantuan carbon footprint, said the directive is “a good first step.” But ultimately, the Department of Defense must make bolder moves to draw down emissions.
“We have to demilitarize,” she said.
Historically, the U.S. response to codified national security threats has been increased militarization—just look at the way the threat of terrorism has been used to justify endless war. As writer Adam Johnson recently pointed out, some actors have also used the climate crisis to justify a more violent approach to national safety. For instance, the American Security Project—a think tank which Biden’s climate czar John Kerry helped found—has called for “increasing personnel numbers” of immigration authorities.
The past four years have acutely shown the level of cruelty when the immigration apparatus is deployed in the name of “national security,” with mass detention and deportation of adults and minors alike and the fortification of the U.S.-Mexico border (to say nothing of previous administrations). The climate crisis is one of a mix of factors that contributed to many Central American migrants leaving their homes, and climate disasters displace over 20 million people each year. A more unstable climate will exacerbate the conditions that can lead to migration, and responding with force could lead down a dangerous road. Crawford said the Biden administration must resist this approach.
“Climate change can lead to conflict and war, but war, we know, also promotes climate change,” she said. “So we can’t fight climate change as a threat with more and more military spending, [leading to] more greenhouse gas emissions from the military.”
Biden’s executive order directs his national intelligence director to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate—or a written analysis created to guide leaders develop foreign policy—on the implications of global climate change to American safety. That report will likely include analyses on the increased likelihood of war abroad as many places face increased competition for resources dried up by the climate crisis, such as water. Crawford said she feared the National Intelligence Estimate will suggest that in response to increasing turbulence abroad, the U.S. should ramp up the military’s preparedness for potential violent threats.
“We’re better off, spending our attention on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing warming and diminishing the likelihood of those conflicts than preparing for those conflicts with more weapons and troops,” she said. “Should they arise, we have plenty of weapons and troops and power projection capacity already.”
If more resources are allocated for the Department of Defense specifically, there is also the question of accountability.
“Compared to other parts of the federal government, the U.S. military is so consistently and well funded that politicians often suggest its logistical capacity and resources should be used to help with societal crises, like natural disasters, or pandemic relief,” Ashik Siddique, a research analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Priorities Project, said in an email. “But a big red flag with this is that the Pentagon has infamously poor accounting.”
He noted that the Pentagon has failed several budget audits in recent years, and that the Department of Defense has a history of misallocating funds to simply increase military supplies. For instance, in March, the Pentagon received $1 billion from the nation’s covid-19 stimulus bill to respond to the pandemic, but it diverted most of those funds to defense contractors to produce items such as parts for jet engines and armor.
Instead of increasing military resources, Crawford said the Biden administration should think seriously about the ways the climate crisis should lead to a decreased military presence in far-flung parts of the globe. For instance, thousands of American troops are currently deployed in the Persian Gulf. At least part of that mission is focused on ensuring oil—a quarter of the world’s oil supply comes from the Middle East—keeps flowing uninterrupted.
Integrating climate concerns into foreign policy, Crawford said, should include letting go of the use of force to protect fossil fuels for American use. As the country increases its renewable energy capacity, it should lower its use of oil. That would decrease the need for military operations to safeguard it abroad in places like the Middle East. This would not only avoid the carbon pollution caused by using that oil, it would also avoid the emissions associated with the aircrafts and tanks used in guarding it.
“As we decrease reliance on Persian Gulf oil, we can begin to withdraw the thousands of U.S. troops that are based there and diminish the amount of resources to the Navy uses to protect the Gulf,” she said.
Rather than continuing to compete with other foreign powers for fossil fuels, the U.S. should foster a spirit of cooperation and provide resources to poorer countries to help them transition away from fossil fuels. In his new executive order, Biden pledges to “develop a strategy for how the voice and vote of the U.S. can be used...to promote financing programs, economic stimulus packages, and debt relief initiatives that are aligned with and support the goals of the Paris Agreement.” Since the U.S. has contributed so much to historic greenhouse gas emissions, it bears a large responsibility in the realm of international climate finance.
“The biggest thing the U.S. could do for a just climate-focused foreign policy is massively increase its funding to international climate aid, which would help adaptation and mitigation effort in Global South countries that are most vulnerable but least responsible for the climate crisis—many of which are also dealing with the ongoing legacy of colonialism, unfair trade practices, and military interventions backed by the U.S. for the past century,” Siddique said.
Under the Obama administration, the nation never committed more than $3 billion annually to the Green Climate Fund, the United Nation’s grant-making body that provides resources for international climate action. Biden’s administration could increase that as a means of bolstering national security and doing the right thing.
It could also help ease tensions and suffering abroad by preparing for the millions of people who research indicates will be displaced by climate disaster in the coming years. According to the International Organization on Migration, we could see up 1 billion climate refugees by 2050. The executive order calls for considering the changing climate in international forums on migration, which is a good beginning. In those forums, the nation could commit to funding adaptation and mitigation strategies to decrease climate threats, and allowing more refugees to make new homes in the U.S.
“It’s a big step forward to acknowledge that the climate crisis impacts all policy, but there are many big questions around how climate concerns will be applied when U.S. foreign policy lacks a consistent framework that centers human rights,” Siddique said. The Biden administration has a huge opportunity to address those questions, and it should do so by promoting global cooperation.