Climate change is as much a security threat to the international community – the United States included – as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The US Department of Defense has long recognised this reality, and has incorporated climate change considerations into its planning. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the US Congress in December, for instance, calls climate change a “direct threat to the national security of the United States”.
Yet the Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS), also released this month, omits any mention of the risks posed by climate change. Instead, the NSS rails against what it calls an ‘anti-growth energy agenda’, and urges the US to achieve ‘energy dominance’. Given the US president’s history of climate change denialism, this is not surprising. Nonetheless, such actions represent egregious negligence on behalf of the Commander in Chief in his duty to protect his country.
Climate change is a boring crisis. Amid a frenetic news cycle, it lacks the daily developments, wacky characters, and controversial scandals to keep it on the front page. That doesn’t lessen the severity of the problem. The international community’s delays have already all but ensured that the world will warm by more than 1.5°C this century. National commitments under the 2016 Paris Agreement will see the world exceed 3°C of warming by the century’s end. Dramatic cuts to carbon emissions are needed to ensure that the world avoids exceeding 2°C, itself an arbitrary limit and an unsafe level of warming.
The 2017 NSS declares economic prosperity to be a ‘pillar of national security’, but does not address the economic costs incurred due to climate change. An OECD report in 2015 calculated that without the necessary action to limit climate change, the annual GDP of the G20 economies could be reduced by as much as 3.3 per cent by 2060, even if it is assumed (somewhat dubiously) that economic growth rates are unaffected. If growth rates are impacted, the effect will be much larger. Among the damage will be more frequent natural disasters, reduced food production, both from crops and fisheries, and rising sea levels causing havoc to existing infrastructure.
Associated with this will be massive security challenges. Worldwide, there are 1,774 US military bases situated along coastlines. Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean just one metre above sea level, functions as a US military logistics hub and plays an important role in the global positioning system. Rising sea levels could soon see it submerged. The naval and air bases on Guam, vital to the US military’s presence in East Asia, could also be rendered inoperable by natural disasters.
Climate-related damage to US military readiness, already under strain, will soon be exacerbated. The melting of the Arctic opens a new venue for strategic competition. Instability caused by food prices, drought, and poverty will increase the risk of civil conflict. Migration, already a threat in the eyes of the Trump administration, will become a larger challenge than it is today. Civil conflict, food shortages, and displacement by rising sea levels will inevitably force millions to move in search of security. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stressed that these problems are not a distant possibility, but a crisis happening now.
The US military’s efforts to adapt to these threats are important. But adaption must be accompanied by mitigation policies to limit climate change in the first place. Here, the Trump administration is sabotaging US and international security. In 2017, President Trump: revoked the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce power sector emissions by 32 per cent by 2030; disbanded the federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment; told federal government agencies they needn’t account for the climate change impacts of their actions and projects; signalled his intention to reduce vehicle fuel-economy standards; and, infamously, notified the UN that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
The US cannot withdraw from the agreement until 4 November 2020 (one day after the next US presidential election), so American officials will continue to attend international climate negotiations. They will be a superpower doing nothing to lead the international community in the battle to combat climate change.
The good news for the rest of the world is that China has enthusiastically taken up that role. This month, China instituted a national carbon-trading scheme, twice the size of the European Union’s. China’s solar panel industry is also the world’s largest and growing rapidly. Furthermore, China has reportedly already met its goal of reaching peak emissions by 2030, and Beijing may announce more ambitious targets in the near future. For now, the US has forfeited its international credibility on climate change policy.
The economic challenge of fighting climate change is less than the political one. Placing a tax on emissions is a market-friendly, conservative solution to combatting climate change, and one supported by international oil companies. A tax of US$25 per ton of carbon pollution (comparable with prices elsewhere) would bring in US$1.1 trillion over 10 years, which, after compensating poor families affected by price increases, would still leave an enormous amount for patching up the US national debt. Other studies have found that investments to switch to low-carbon energy sources would cost the world $44 trillion by 2050, but be entirely paid for by fuel savings.
Ignoring climate change will heighten security risks and damage the economy. And the longer we wait for Trump to get serious about the problem, the greater the cost.
Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.