Climate Defense: An Exploration of the Securitization of Climate Change, Its Solutions & Implications

John Norris
37 min readMay 7, 2021

Abstract:

The climate crisis has exposed defensive vulnerabilities within our human and natural systems, threatening global and domestic security. Combatting these security threats requires a new frame of thought to also allow for relevant actors to expand existing defense apparatuses that can only be engaged during times of extreme emergency. Securitizing climate change by establishing effective climate defenses through physical, political, technological, or economic policies will enable State actors to be prepared for the coming challenges, while simultaneously strengthening the national capacity to respond or adapt to the consequences of global warming, ecosystem deterioration, and resulting national resource depletion. The US and its expansive defense network are particularly well-positioned to facilitate these necessary changes on the homefront, and also to lead and shape the response globally. Already, US political and defense stakeholders have begun to establish climate defenses at all levels of society, but more needs to be done should the US wish to accomplish its goals related to reducing the impacts of climate change. Implementing any of our proposed solutions will empower existing climate-related efforts. While some of these solutions may be more attainable than others, any that successfully reduce national greenhouse gas emissions or mitigate the coming destruction caused by an unstable environment will save lives, and strengthen national security. For each proposed solution, we explore the inherent challenges and implications, but these typically are far outweighed by the climate defense advantages. US policy-makers must actively pursue climate defenses that contribute to the security of the nation through preventative, mitigative, and adaptive activities that significantly reduce the negative forces stemming from unsustainable climate change because, ultimately, this will strengthen our national security and enable the US to continue competing on the geopolitical stage as a global leader.

Definitions:

The below terms reflect the culmination of our assessment’s research and interview portion. We have identified and characterized terms we believe are relevant to understanding how to effectively fortify a state’s security against the worst consequences of climate change. Specifically, we have coined “climate defense,” which reflects the core concept we seek to explore. Additionally, we have laid out a roadmap for the security areas that are most integral to effectively incorporating climate defense into the US security framework, which was laid out based upon conversations held with experts and exploration of relevant literature.

Climate Defense — Climate defense represents the active measures taken by security communities to prevent the most catastrophic impacts created by the consequences of global warming, which can include preventative, mitigative, and adaptive activities or policies that significantly reduce those negative forces to better secure the sovereign nation.

Climate National Security Factors:

  1. Sovereignty & Securitization: The protection of borders and the impact climate change has on both national and natural borders (i.e. rivers, icecaps, mountains etc.). These climate change-induced geographical developments can be weaponized to force geopolitical conflict.
  2. Economics & Trade: As the use of fossil fuels becomes more palpably harmful to the climate, countries will be forced to pivot. Those who fail to lead this pivot will likely find themselves beholden to the countries that led the transition, straining their national and economic security. Additionally, as the warming climate opens up new trade routes in the Arctic, trade route security will become increasingly difficult to control and use cooperatively.
  3. Infrastructure: As climate change exposes roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, and other critical national infrastructure to new temperatures and extreme weather events, infrastructural integrity will become increasingly threatened, leading to wider socioeconomic insecurity.
  4. Geopolitical Competition & Cooperation: As the climate crisis creates new challenges and overwhelms existing national infrastructures, resources, economies, and borders, burgeoning areas of competition threaten to upend existing alliances and prospects for global cooperation.
  5. Sustainable Development: Climate change threatens to widen the gulf between the Global North and South, compounding the already existing inequalities that define our contemporary world. Without sustainable development many smaller problems could grow to a looming crisis.
  6. Technological Advancement: Climate change has forced a technological renaissance on microclimate experimentation to reduce the effects and impacts of climate change. This has created scientific improvements in a variety of sectors. Whoever has their hand on the ‘global thermometer’ will lead the world against climate change, and possess key geopolitical leverage.
  7. Military Preparedness & Readiness: The US armed forces, particularly the Navy and Air Force, are especially susceptible to the negative impacts caused by climate-related outcomes. Military equipment and readiness become unstable due to environmental degradation, while increased frequency of extreme weather events pose setbacks to both training and base maintenance.
  8. Natural Conservation & Destruction: The warming climate has disrupted natural habitats across the world, leading to widespread floral and faunal extinction, environmental destruction, and strains on food chain integrity, which has created a whole host of security threats for countries and their human populations.

Introduction:

Over the past decade, climate change has become increasingly prioritized as a threat to US national security interests. The securitization of climate change has occurred in response to the numerous negative effects observed as a consequence of a warming climate, which include, but are not limited to, strains on border security due to climate-induced migration, soaring costs associated with damage from natural disasters, and economic sectoral constraints as companies are forced to adapt to the demands of a changing environment. As climate change’s negative effects have become more tangible, America’s response to climate change has grown more urgent and more demanding.

This change in philosophy toward embracing climate change as an issue of national security has been reflected in recent years, as seen in its inclusion in key US security policy frameworks and whitepapers, such as those recently published by the Pentagon and Department of Defense (DoD). These contemporary publications have reinforced the notion that the US armed forces, recognizing the risks that a warming planet poses to domestic bases, training, and soldier readiness, have launched a multitude of infrastructural renovation and renewable energy transition initiatives.

On the political front, recent actions taken by President Biden, whose “whole-of-government” approach has dramatically shifted the strategic thinking of the federal government from previous administrations, have sought to bring climate defense to the forefront of domestic policy-making and enable state cooperation at the global stage. This new strategy, which has included coordinating climate goals across federal and state-level government agencies, appointing John Kerry as the first ever US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, ordering the DoD to implicitly prioritize climate-related considerations in future risk assessments or policy frameworks, and hosting multilateral climate summits, are incredible first steps toward effectively combating the worst parts of climate change, but more can be done to establish comprehensive climate defenses.

Despite recent securitization trends, however, the climate crisis remains a critical matter of national security. Current initiatives have been disjointed, and emphasize mitigation and response to the effects of climate change rather than adaptation and long-term resilience. In fact, according to the Climate Action Tracker, the US’s current trajectory for preventing global temperature rise of 1.5° C, is “critically insufficient,” but could be remedied through recent infrastructure and human investment plans released by the Biden administration, which has commited cutting US emissions in half by 2030.

The best path forward is to increasingly designate the climate crisis as a matter of national security. While this path has been explored, it remains largely uncharted, as a variety of potential security-based solutions to climate change have yet to be utilized, implemented, or envisioned. Using securitization as the foundation for combating the climate crisis, we explore solutions and their implications. We briefly explore international trends, but dedicate the bulk of our research toward American climate defense and trends. To that end, we hope that our assessment on the current construct of US climate defenses can inform the policy-making process and educate the public about how best to overcome the security challenges presented by climate change.

Research Question(s):

How has the ongoing securitization of climate change shaped American climate defense and what gaps still remain within our security apparatus that require urgent attention?

What organizations and/or countries have successfully implemented effective climate defenses and can be held up as standards for how best to tackle the challenges created by evolving climate change.

What climate defense policy recommendations/solutions will need to be implemented to effectively combat climate change and how will these policies come to fruition? What are the implications of these solutions?

What obstacles still exist to formally securitize the climate crisis and treat it as the all-encompassing security threat which it represents to future success of human civilization?

Conceptual Framework:

Securitization theory in international relations is the process of state actors transforming subjects, which are often purely politicized issues, into matters of security. This designation enables states to take extraordinary measures against the security threat in the name of national defense. Connected to the Copenhagen School, securitization theory in international relations is best prescribed when attempting to foster an engaged analytical dialogue and debate about a topic that is often seen via televisual medium, and thus, not fully understood. Securitization places these complex issues, whose processes are multifaceted, at the forefront of policy-makers agendas, by increasing the range of those concerned. It achieves this by identifying the issue as an emergency threat that impacts a wide network of communities — far wider than those viewing the issue as purely political.

We chose securitization as our framework for analysis because the American defense apparatus has always been the biggest recipient of federal funding and is wildly popular with average Americans, who by and large, are mostly supportive of issues that are considered national security threats. Furthermore, unlike other classical or contemporary international relations theories, such as realism, liberalism, feminism, constructivism etc., securitization theory enables stakeholders to reframe the issue in more colloquial terms that are easier to comprehend and analyze, as well as allow for a wider sectoral engagement when confronting security threats.

This process typically occurs when a state actor has identified a threat to its national security, whether military, political, economic, societal, or environmental, and then begins to attach that threat to the wider multi-sectoral strategy that is required to actively combat the diagnosed risks. Policy decisions acknowledging that climate change is a true matter of national security, therefore, enable stakeholders to better identify the specific hazard that threatens US interests, rather than succumbing to subjective, often over politicized assessments. Pursuing a wider security agenda for climate change and enacting climate defense policies effectively, however, will require careful thought and consideration.

Securitized issues do not necessarily represent problems that must be overcome to guarantee the survival of a state, but rather, represent issues that stakeholders were able to successfully construct into a wider existential threat, which the state’s population could rally around. The securitization theory asserts that subjects which are securitized tend to receive disproportionate amounts of attention and resources. With regards to climate change, theorists would assign the threats associated with global warming as top priorities in security discussion, and stakeholders would need to understand the range of dynamics, some of which are not inherently social, military, or political ones, that occur as a result of global warming.

Unlike other theories, securitization is inherently a political concern whose proponents will use strong and urgent labels, such as “dangerous,” “threatening,” “alarming,” etc., in an attempt to provoke reactions and move the securitized issue beyond politics. Thus, central to any securitization, is the reframing of an issue by decision-makers to convince the populus that something urgent must be done, which can be difficult. Expanding the security agenda to include the threats of climate change, however, is critical because it impacts all sectors of society: the economic, the societal, the military, the political, and the environmental sectors, while its wide ranging effect makes it a threat multiplier whose unmitigated consequences could become unsustainable and threaten the existence of the human species as we currently understand it.

Methodology & Limitations:

Our qualitative research study analysis began with an exploration of the existing literature regarding climate change in both the US political and military arenas. While conducting our assessment of America’s climate defense, we paid close attention to where the gaps in those defenses remained, and contemplated why they were exposed and how they could be remedied. Once our initial content analysis was finished and our research questions were determined, we then participated in three interviews with security professionals who hailed from academic, political, and military backgrounds. Using their knowledge, we began narrowing our Capstone project to identify both our formal goals and the limitations that would restrain our capacity to examine a variety of additional questions centered around climate defense. Below are those limitations:

Limitations Considerations:

Global COVID-19 pandemic

  • Inability to conduct any relevant field research that might otherwise inform our policy recommendations or conclusions
  • Number of potential interviews (time-constraints)

Lack of access to top-secret policy and budgetary documents

  • Not dealing with military expenditures
  • Inability to perform macro- and micro- analysis on every proposed or considered climate defense policy/initiative
  • Inability to conduct extensive Case Study analyses

Bureaucratic feasibility

  • Not dealing with military hierarchies or chains of command
  • Not not looking at every climate defense policy/proposal
  • Not detailing the methodology by which climate defense policies would be implemented within the existing military structure and culture (i.e. flag, command, position in armed forces, etc.)

Focused analysis

  • Not analyzing other IR theories as they relate to climate change (only securitization)
  • Not looking at leadership alternatives in the public/private sector (only military/defense)
  • No energy portfolio deep-dive analysis

Lack of formal military/defense background

  • Lack of policy development background
  • Inability to strategically plan out armed forces deployment, tactics or in-depth strategy

Furthermore, we created a one-page infographic that both identifies existing climate-related threats across the United States and also highlights several existing climate defenses that have achieved noteworthy success through the use of sophisticated geographic information system (GIS) programs. The compilation of these materials consists of the final Capstone submission that was provided to the Center for Global Affairs in fulfillment of the requirement to obtain a Master’s degree in Global Affairs at New York University.

Survey of Recent Climate Securitizations Trends & Examples:

The consequences of climate change have grown more catastrophic in recent years, resulting in its increased securitization. This is made evident by climate change’s inclusion in strategic defense frameworks, such as those put forward by the US Department of Defense, Pentagon, and National Security Council. Both internationally and domestically, the response has been largely motivated by a global recognition that climate change poses a threat to national security. Recent trends emphasize this changing approach, as many nations have determined that insecurity no longer comes only from traditional state actors, but also from non-traditional actors, like the climate crisis. This comes as more nations are recognizing that the climate crisis’s impacts risk upending national security and urgently require new climate defense policies. Recent trends highlight the securitization of climate change, both domestically and internationally.

United States Climate Defense Policies:

National Environmental Policy Act (1970): The US government formally began recognizing the importance of environmental protection under the Nixon Administration. This law established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, and soon after, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. This unconscious securitization represents America’s initial recognition of environmental protection as an urgent national interest. The creation of this agency would act as a prelude for the enactment of several groundbreaking Congressional environmental policies, including the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which were all conceived under the auspices of the government’s first formal climate administrator, William Ruckelshaus. As the agency’s founding administrator, Ruckelshaus, would lay the foundations for the EPA by advocating an expansion of many climate-related initiatives, programs, and protections across the United States. Notably, for the first time in America, he catalyzed the securitization of many environmental concerns, as emphasized by the burning of the Cuyahoga River, which galvanized the nation to action.

Paris Climate Agreement (2015/2021): An international agreement spearheaded by the West, and more specifically, the US, which represents the most widespread global consensus to date that climate change is a threat to security. For the US, this agreement is an example of protecting national security through international diplomacy. Originally signed under the Obama administration, the agreement established the US as a global leader in the climate arena, and has given them a prominent seat at the table for global climate governance. The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the deal not only left the US geopolitically weaker, but less capable of adapting to the future climate challenges that will impact domestic security interests. This is due to less emphasis being placed on developing technologies or policies that might otherwise protect America through climate defense expansion. Recently, however, the Biden administration’s recommitment to the agreement has enabled the US to begin tackling critical gaps that exist within its existing climate defenses. Additionally, it enables global cooperation on a number of climate-related fronts, which will provide America with a stronger footing to overcome future climate challenges, as seen in the recent geopolitical climate summit where over 40 nations participated.

Biden’s ‘Whole-of-Government’ Approach (2021): After identifying climate change as the “existential threat of our time,” the Biden administration has begun implementing key climate defense policies across the US government. Within his platform are the ban of fracking on federal lands, an acceleration toward clean energy transition, and investment in climate resilient infrastructure. Additionally, he has created a new cabinet position: the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. This position’s prominence has risen as it has been given a seat on the National Security Council, and is tasked with inserting climate change into security discussions. Additionally, Biden has tasked his Secretary of Defense, Lyold Austin, with integrating climate change into the military’s structure. This has been evident recently, as Secretary Austin just established a climate working group. This working group’s role is to improve freedom of action in contested environments, deploy new energy solutions that both strengthen military base resilience and modernize the military, identify new opportunities for climate cooperation with allies, and determine potential areas to compete with geopolitical rivals. The approach to leverage ‘whole-of-government’ to tackle climate change is central to Biden’s agenda and will make the US federal government a model for effective climate defense.

United States Armed Forces Climate Defense Trends:

The Patrick Space Force & the JBLE-Langley Air Force Bases: These two upper atmosphere based installations regularly suffer from hurricane and flood damage. Recently, however, the bases have begun strictly following State Building Code requirements around hazard protection and upgraded internal relief and resilience documents. These requirements are all founded on critical floodplain and storm surge data where bases now have designated staff that are responsible for coordinating with State, county, and academic institutions to ensure these requirements are implemented. Additionally, these bases regularly identify and implement resilience strategies that support operational sustainability. This has been evident recently in their use of hazard visualization tools to understand how natural disasters impact their bases. Sustained environmental disruption and destruction will dramatically impact the ability for these bases to act as the launching points for critical air- and space-craft, thereby limiting the US’s air strength. Additionally, unmitigated wind or water damage could eventually force these installations to close due to the loss of critical operational function. The additional cost requirements needed to continuously repair, reconstruct, and redevelop impact installations will end up becoming a drain on future military budgets, unless these bases either relocate further inland to less at risk areas, or install better climate defenses.

Fort Hood Army Base: The base in Texas endured severe flash flooding in June 2016, and was so impactful that it resulted in the death of nine soldiers during a river training exercise. Army personnel overseeing the base’s operations responded by replacing the two dangerous water crossings with bridges, installing stream and depth gauges at critical locations to better monitor flooding, and focusing on clear resilience environmental messaging and training. Additionally, Fort Hood, which is the largest US military base, has begun drawing nearly half of its power from renewable energy sources, such as off-site wind turbines and over 60,000 solar panels. These energy transitions have not only reduced annual energy costs, but also enabled the base to fare relatively well during the historically damaging 2021 Texas Winter storm, never completely losing its power.

Yakima Army Garrison Training Center: This California-based installation is a hotspot for forest wildfire activity, and regularly grapples with ecological contamination from years-long decaying munitions pollution. In response, officials have established their own award-winning forest fire squadron, whose local partnerships have enabled them to be rapidly deployed to tackle emergencies. Officials at Yakima have also begun addressing soil and groundwater pollution by both identifying affected areas, and deploying trained clean-up teams who work with local officials to sustainably solve the problem and prevent future contamination. Training installations that are unable to serve as drill, exercise, and guidance centers for future troops will mean that there is a strong possibility the US military’s quality will decrease, since soldiers will not be able to properly educate themselves on how to protect the homefront. The military has increasingly recognized the importance of these training installations and has placed particular emphasis on improving their climate defense. They have also focused on implementing more stringent climate-based standards, including regular environmental damage reports, and increasingly using these centers to prepare troops to face hazards.

Navy Region Southwest: A majority of Navy bases across the Southwest regularly face a combination of environmental hazards (wildfires, flooding, earthquakes etc.), and have been forced to incorporate climate defense measures into their adaptive planning. This has included vulnerability studies, building modifications to resist environmental damage, joint defense training with CALFIRE representatives, and the promotion of sustainable resource management practices, such as designating special sites for natural redevelopment and other places for critical resource protection. The Navy has been one of the most aggressive branches of the military in confronting the challenges posed by climate change, especially considering how a majority of its operations are conducted in the ocean or on the coasts. Specifically, under the Obama administration, the Navy created a Climate Change Task Force that sought to incorporate climate change into the Navy’s decision-making process. This group studies, analyzes, and tests climate defenses that could be implemented into the Navy, and improve their overall capacity and resilience. Active engagement with climate change will make planning for its impacts and managing future threats a strategic concern, which can be addressed thoughtfully and without hindrance to the Navy’s abilities.

International Climate Defense Trends:

Operation LENTUS: This is the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) response to natural disasters in Canada that overwhelm provincial and territorial authorities. The joint CAF forces that respond follow an established plan of action to support communities in crisis, which can be adapted to multiple situations, whether it be forest fires, floods, ice storms, or hurricanes. This domestic response mechanism has experienced rapid growth in operational demand, especially as the effects of climate change have grown more frequent and severe. It has also seen an expansion in responsibilities and duties as COVID-19 has forced the federal government to consider innovative ways to provide support and assistance to at-risk communities that might otherwise not possess the capacity to protect themselves.

The National Energy Strategy: While Morocco’s energy consumption has risen steadily in the past few decades, it has failed to diversify its domestic energy sources and still relies heavily on imported hydrocarbons as fuel. Morocco’s comprehensive response to its import-based energy insecurity has been the National Energy Strategy, which has resulted in enormous savings, reductions in total emissions and massive investment in projects such as the Noor Ouarzazate solar farm, the largest solar farm in the world, that has all spurred a Moroccan transition toward a more renewable future. Morocco has not simply prioritized its renewable ambition out of concern for the climate or for energy security reasons, but rather as a “green stimulus” to achieve multiple development objectives. These objectives include long-lasting economic growth dividends and job creation and skill development, through integrated solar and wind development projects along the renewables value chain. The recognition that climate defense not only provides protection, but also sustainable development, is what makes Morocco’s plan one of the most ambitious in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Moving forward, it will likely serve as a model for other developing or import-based nations requiring energy-centered climate defense to secure their future security.

Climate Insurance Schemes : Bangladesh’s state-backed farm insurance schemes aim to serve vulnerable farmers who have suffered economic losses in the face of climate-induced hazards. Weather-based Index Risk Insurance schemes have proven indispensable in Bangladesh, and elsewhere, representing one of many recent investments in disaster preparedness and risk reduction programs. These programs have made many at-risk communities more resilient to the dangers of climatic shock. The schemes and systems are increasingly emerging as effective climate defense tools for developing nations, as they can be easily implemented, are low-cost initiatives, and provide immediate relief for populations whose livelihoods are dependent upon climate-specific industries. Bangladesh has tackled climate change by developing climate defenses that are unique to its situation, and the nation serves as an ideal model for other nations who are threatened by rising sea levels.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): The intergovernmental military alliance has recognized the changing nature of risks that threaten its collective security, and more recently, have paid special attention to the rapidly changing climate. The alliance has begun discussing how climate change drives global instability and insecurity, weakening certain allies and strengthening others, while also releasing reports that situate the climate risks within the larger global trends, such as urbanization, resource competition and rising geopolitical tension. More specifically, NATO has made considerable efforts to improve energy efficiency, experiment with alternative energy technologies among its forces, and educate coalition partners on all aspects of environmental challenges. Additionally, it has accelerated the pace of environmental defense adaptation, such as climate change crisis management, disaster response training, and encouraging member states to share technology that can be integrated into existing security and defense strategies. Furthermore, NATO has made considerable investments into energy research, as seen in the Smart Energy initiative, which sought to reduce the risks associated with hydrocarbon use. It aimed to do this by developing smart energy generation equipment that improved storage, distribution and consumption, and could be rapidly integrated into the NATO Defense Planning Process.

So what…?

Monitoring these trends is critical for charting a realistic US climate defense path forward. By recognizing the multitude of climate securitization examples both domestically and internationally, we can understand that a necessary reframe of climate change is already occurring. It has become clear that combating climate change is no longer just a popular environmentalist cause, but also necessary for bolstering and maintaining our national defense capacities. American policy-makers who embrace and understand these trends will be most capable of engaging their governments to properly address the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.

Proposed Solutions:

The following are five priority solutions based on our research and analysis, which includes interviews with several high level military and defense officials. We recognize that there is a level of potential bureaucratic challenge and pushback attached to all of these solutions, as these are alterations to the current system. We accept that as a given, and a basic premise of each of our proposed solutions. But, we want to put those aside because climate change is happening now, and thus, we must propose stronger climate defense solutions now.

  1. Climate Defense Corps — A task force unit consisting of professional military forces and/or local volunteer workers who are conscripted in the event of a devastating hazard from among the community. Emulating the frameworks that established Canada’s Operation LENTUS, an American Climate Defense Force would be built around the existing military. This force will provide ongoing climate adaptation support, supplement first responders during unwieldy extreme weather events, conduct relevant environmental training for affected populations and other uniformed personnel, as well as conduct ongoing research alongside relevant research and development organizations on the threats of climate change. This force could also supplement on-the-ground National Guard forces who might otherwise be overwhelmed due to State-level resources proving inadequate at properly addressing the disaster and revilizating the impacted areas post-hazard as resilience efforts are being undertaken.
  2. Recalibrated FEMA — FEMA should receive significantly more funding, and restructure itself to prioritize climate adaptation measures over emergency management. Through this defense-through-offense approach, FEMA will become America’s frontline climate defenders. FEMA employees and volunteers will be deployed to American regions that are highly susceptible to the consequences of climate change, and work on a variety of adaptation projects to fortify the climate defense of those regions. Furthermore, given FEMA’s existing expertise in disaster risk reduction and relief, the agency would be well placed to take on more responsibilities that are within the scope of its purview.
  3. Research & Development (R&D) Redistribution Through the Elevation of Federal Agencies — Due to the effects of climate change, America spends billions on critical installation repair and renovation. Promoting certain federal agencies higher into the existing defense infrastructure and tasking them with developing the next climate-related innovations, will be conducive to both strengthening climate defense, and saving costs related to reconstruction and upgrades. Whether these newly included federal agencies are primarily focused on energy, defense, or the economy, retooling R&D to be more focused on commercializing newly discovered technologies around climate change, will be advantageous for US climate defense. Doing this will allow us to deal with the near-term problems, while also exporting our knowledge internationally to address more systemic, long-term problems. All of this will occur while critical new linkages between the US armed forces and government are forged, providing a more integrated plan of attack against the challenge of climate change.
  4. Federal Agency Climate Defense Administrator — To effectively coordinate climate policies across government, each agency should expand their organizational structures to include a senior climate change officer. Doing so will help prioritize climate defense within each agency, and bolster interagency coordination on climate defense objectives. To date, governmental climate defense efforts have been mostly disjointed, due to disparate agency approaches and mission prioritizations. The implementation of this top-down solution will create a more cohesive climate defense for each government agency, and therefore, for all of government.
  5. Department of the Interior & Eminent Domain for Defensive Lands — The use of eminent domain, whereby the government utilizes its power to take private property and convert it for public use under the Fifth Amendment, to secure land deemed critical to effectively combating climate change, may be one of the least attainable climate defense policy, but could prove to be one of the most effective. Already, Department of Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, has designated that no federal land would be used for fossil fuel development or exploitation. A similar designation on lands obtained via eminent domain could allow for these strategic areas to be transformed into climate defenses. These designated climate defense areas would either mitigate climate-related consequences or be redeveloped to be more resilient and sustainable in the future.

These proposed solutions attempt not only to embrace recent trends in climate securitization, but also are designed to holistically bolster national security through the filling of critical US climate defense gaps. Currently, America’s climate defense apparatus is lacking in its coordination, muscle, and funding. Our proposed solutions provide realistic low risk, high reward opportunities to improve those areas, while also giving even further legitimacy to the US government’s decision to securitize climate change and its impacts. Implementing any of these proposed solutions will fuel the strategic reframe of climate change further, and thus, strengthen US climate defense opportunities, but will always come with inherent challenges that must be addressed.

Implications:

Each of our proposed solutions presents a variety of opportunities and challenges. Some of these opportunities provide real grounds for meaningful climate defense action. The challenges, on the other hand, present potential hurdles and setbacks that are inherent to our proposed solutions. As we have mentioned, proposing any substantial alteration to governmental structure will always come with challenges: bureaucratic red tape, budgetary constraints, etc. We acknowledge those realities as a basic premise of our proposed solutions, but, for the sake of brevity, do not include them in this section.

Climate Defense Corps:

Opportunities

Instituting a Climate Defense Corps could create perhaps some of the greatest climate defense opportunities for America. Firstly, because the Climate Defense Corps would be a new branch inside of the existing military infrastructure, the Corps would be joining an entity that has extensive experience in handling large-scale hazards. This would be both relevant and beneficial for dealing with the Corps’s climate hazard and defense aims. Additionally, with the apolitical nature of the military, climate defense operations would experience less interagency involvement, and thus, more autonomy. Being free from the constraints of political red tape would give the Corps the capacity to work unimpeded and deliver effective results. Perhaps most notably, this new branch would experience unrivaled efficiency and logistical superiority in climate defense. Backed by the US’s massive defense budget, and unencumbered by political red tape, a Climate Defense Corps would achieve gains in the realm of climate change that are an extension of America’s current military status: unrivaled. These gains would establish the US as the clear global leader in the face of a mounting crisis, bolstering America’s international primacy and providing the nation with a Corps that could be sent to assist internationally, enhancing national reputation, both of which are two key facets to effective defense strategy domestically and globally.

Challenges

While a Climate Defense Corps presents many exciting opportunities, its challenges are just as evident. The first challenge is its potential distraction from the military’s original job and duty of providing physical security to the homefront. Members of the military are trained as soldiers first, before their specific occupation. This is because combat, for all military branches, is an inherent facet of war. The soldiers that constitute the Climate Defense Corps, however, would be trained to fight fires, build adaptive mitigative structures or provide community resilience, for example, rather than fight adversarial actors. There is a reason that fire departments are not part of the military — they do not share the same explicit function. Similarly, the Climate Defense Corps’s focus on environmental enemies rather than human enemies, may lead many to conclude that it does not belong within the military, and rather, should be its own, new agency, or incorporated into something else, like FEMA or the EPA. Convincing the public, the military, and the government that a Climate Defense Corps shares enough of the same basic duties and aims as the rest of the military would be a huge challenge.

Recalibrated Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):

Opportunities

A recalibrated FEMA comes with many opportunities. First, its increased capacity for emergency services would help bolster climate defense, specifically in the area of response. A larger response force through the engagement of wide-scale community involvement would also increase regional resiliency in hazard prevention and mitigation, while simultaneously educating the public about climate change. Secondly, a recalibrated FEMA would provide meaningful field testing opportunities for new climate defense R&D, ranging from carbon capture technologies, to greener infrastructural frameworks, to more efficient energy or transport methods. Lastly, a recalibrated FEMA would force a key government agency to strategically reframe its mission in order to maximize its operational capacity. Creating this strategic shift toward climate sectury through a defensive posture in one government agency could lead to ripples throughout the entire government altogether.

Challenges

Recalibrating FEMA to bolster climate defense poses several challenges. By relying on a mostly volunteer force for climate defense efforts, there is potential for an overall reduction in the worker and response quality. Additionally, it is unclear how successful such a program would be in their recruitment efforts, particularly when so many are already struggling themselves. Perhaps there would be difficulty in hiring enough volunteers to satisfy the mission requirements. Lastly, it is possible that this strategic reframe could prove too narrow in scope, and ultimately fail to bolster climate defense efforts in the full scope of emergency management (mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery etc.). Failing to balance the various components of emergency management and/or climate defense could create a paralyzing situation that requires yet another strategic reframe, hampering future efforts to combat the consequences posed by climate change.

R&D Redistribution Through the Elevation of Federal Agencies:

Opportunities

Currently, US climate defense R&D is confined mostly to military entities. This reality is restrictive and fails to maximize America’s potential for climate-related security or defense innovations. Expanding this to include all relevant government agencies could lead to new, cutting edge technologies, and thus, incentivizes the US to spend money on climate defense now versus later. Additionally, these innovations could allow the US to export technologies to other carbon emitting nations, thereby by shoring up critical segments of international markets and cornering the market for US interests. As the US government recognizes the potential for economic gain surrounding climate defense technological innovation, this could also increase climate defense integration between political and military actors.

Challenges

Expanding climate defense R&D funding to all government agencies carries quite a few challenges. First, there is an inherent risk in assuming new R&D will be beneficial. More spending does not always equal more success. This is especially true in our scenario when we recognize that many other government agencies aren’t explicitly security or defense oriented. Because of this, there could be a challenge in ensuring that all of the R&D funding is being spent on viable climate defense innovations. Lastly, as we have seen in many presidential administrations, government agencies are often victims of politicization. Because some agencies will receive more of this funding than others, thus, creating winners and losers, there could be an exacerbation of agency politicization, ultimately hampering this solution’s effectiveness.

Federal Agency Climate Defense Administrator:

Opportunities

For too long, the US government has suffered from an uneven and disjointed approach, understanding, and embrace of climate defense. As a result, the bold climate defense approaches of some agencies have always been hindered by the negligence of others. Appointing a key climate defense administrator to each agency, however, could unleash climate defense coordination on an unprecedented scale. These administrators would possess critical knowledge and understanding about how their agency’s mission intersects with climate defense. This could be a key way for President Biden to achieve his whole-of-government approach toward solving the climate crisis, as climate defense would be featured in all agency considerations and discussions.

Challenges

Appointing a climate defense administrator to each federal agency could also prove to be a challenge. It is likely unrealistic to place the massive responsibility of climate defense at each agency on one individual. Furthermore, by doing this instead of appointing climate defense officials throughout an agency, this proposed solution could potentially silo climate defense efforts. Perhaps interagency coordination would benefit, but a siloed climate defense sector within each agency could create a challenge for intragency coordination. Lastly, this solution could create agency hierarchical confusion and animosity that may disrupt normal operations.

Department of Interior Establishing Climate Defense Areas via Eminent Domain:

Opportunities

The acquisition of private lands through eminent domain opens up a plethora of climate defense opportunities, as it allows the US and its security apparatus wider access to develop effective climate defenses across the nation. These lands could be designated as natural sanctuaries, whose natural services provide physical or economic benefits that outweigh the amount it would cost to purchase. The specific way in which these expropriated lands are used would be varied based upon their location and condition, but the majority of them would be converted into something that would function as a natural or man-made defense (ie reforestation, sea wall, advanced resource centers for mitigation etc.). Furthermore, this could aid in beginning the process of relocating climate vulnerable communities, such as those that are riparian, on coasts, or under constant higher ambient temperatures, to areas that are safer from environmental collapse or degradation.

Challenges

As we observed during the Trump administration’s Mexican border wall endeavor, eminent domain is far more difficult to implement than it might originally seem. Simply designating a security issue a critical emergency that requires extraordinary measures to contain, does not necessarily mean everything can immediately be accomplished with the stroke of a pen. The legal issues alone present an enormous headache for the federal government as it seeks to essentially annex private land for federal use, while the economic concerns could prove problematic as certain citizens refuse to sell their land and others demand exorbitant prices. Furthermore, there may be community pressure to not transform local areas into certain developments, otherwise known as NIMBYism, where people deeply rooted in the region are opposed to new things appearing in their field of view, as seen in the opposition against wind farms.

While all of our proposed solutions possess a multitude of challenges, we believe that their potential benefits and opportunities ultimately outweigh any of these hurdles. The gaps that currently exist within the US climate defense network can no longer be ignored, as both our national and geopolitical security are clearly at stake. As stated in the recent report released by the Director of National Intelligence, “the effects of a changing climate and environmental degradation will create a mix of direct and indirect threats, including risks to the economy, heightened political volatility, human displacement, and new venues for geopolitical competition that will play out during the next decade and beyond.” We believe the implications of these proposed solutions are overwhelmingly positive for our nation’s climate defense cultivation, and absolutely necessary for protecting American interests at home and abroad.

Conclusion:

As the effects of climate change have become increasingly harmful to national and human securities, climate securitization has provided some relief. Should the United States of America seek to remain a global leader and strengthen its national security, however, this securitization must be accelerated, since current climate defense efforts are woefully inadequate. Securitization as a strategic framework has been a helpful tool in mobilizing public support for climate defense efforts, but there is still sizable resistance toward the pursuit of a more sustainable and climate-friendly agenda. Most national strategies and solutions have remained too preoccupied with combatting the symptoms of climate change, rather than its underlying cause, since these are the most obvious signs of a changing climate. Climate change, in and of itself however, is the threat.

A recent industry analysis has estimated that unfettered climate change could shave nearly $23 trillion dollars in annual global economic output as rising temperatures and rising seas decimate poor and wealthy nations alike. This problem will obviously prove a challenge on the domestic front, but the consequences from global warming affect the entire planet, and thus, problems abroad will impact our own nation’s capacities. As noted by Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry, “the connections between climate change and national security are clear,” and because of this, pursuing national security by guaranteeing the climate defense of our critical socioeconomic and military installations will ensure economic, social, and geopolitical success.

In order to embrace this shift, and fully heed Kerry’s words, security communities must prioritize climate defense and place it at the top of their agendas. When US security communities elevate their prioritization of climate defense, it will unleash a powerful force across government that will trickle down into society: unified belief. In an attempt to be more secure, both individuals and government agencies alike will begin reassessing their own behaviors and their impacts on our global climate systems. Hawaii, for example, recently became the first State to declare a climate emergency, establishing a collaboration on alleviating the adverse effects of climate change. This kind of transformative change can only occur when we are all made to feel the urgency of this moment; something that only us doubling down on climate securitization can accomplish.

And as we’ve outlined, bolstering American climate defense will not just make our bases and military more secure, but will provide new avenues for economic gain. It will create jobs. It will increase human security, thereby boosting border security. And, importantly, it will provide the US with much needed geopolitical prestige after four years of heightened international backlash.

Bolstering American climate defense is the path forward for so many areas of American success: economic, geopolitical, infrastructure, societal. Climate defense is the future, and the urgency of the future is now.

Questions for Future Discussion:

  1. What are the implications for utilizing a new conceptual framework to examine the climate crisis?
  2. How will fighting climate change impact the strategic considerations that our national defense apparatus undertakes in light of the fact that future challenges are actorless problems?
  3. How will other noteworthy socioeconomic criteria fit into future climate defense policies?
  4. What command structure would need to be crafted or retooled to lead the securitization of climate change across the US security apparatus?
  5. How will a climate defense force be mustered, equipped, and operationalized?

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John Norris

Graduate student from NYU's Center for Global Affairs interested in the intersection between climate change and security, with an emphasis in disaster relief.