TSG IntelBrief: Playing Politics With Climate Change
June 1, 2017

Playing Politics With Climate Change


Bottom Line Up Front:

• President Trump is reportedly leaning towards withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

• Such a move would validate recent calls by European leaders to craft an EU foreign policy that accounts for a diminishing U.S. leadership role.

• The threat of climate change has for years been recognized by senior military and intelligence officials as a grave threat to U.S. national security.

• The instability wrought by climate change is already evident in many conflict zones, putting greater demands on U.S. national security resources.


The Trump administration is reportedly leaning towards withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, potentially ending the U.S. commitment to significantly reducing its greenhouse gas emissions under the accord. The agreement was a monumental achievement of U.S. diplomatic efforts to muster the global community against a threat that simply defies unilateral action. The decision to withdraw from the accord would put the U.S. in opposition to almost every other country in the world, dealing a decisive blow to U.S. credibility abroad and putting the world closer to a collision course with its addiction to fossil fuels. 

Serious steps to end or reduce the U.S. commitment to the agreement would likely be seen as yet another example of the Trump administration’s adherence to an ‘America First’ foreign policy, effectively disavowing efforts to leverage U.S. leadership abroad in pursuit of global solutions to global challenges. That the U.S. would sabotage one of its most important diplomatic achievements in the twenty-first century—despite the obvious and growing threat posed by climate change—is likely to validate European leaders’ latest vote of diminished confidence in America’s ability to maintain a leadership role in international affairs. 

Whereas the Trump administration’s calculation regarding the Paris agreement is based chiefly on political and economic concerns, the effects of climate change have for years been recognized by senior military and intelligence officials as a grave threat to U.S. national security. In 2010, the U.S. military’s Joint Forces Command identified climate change as one of the major security threats likely to confront the U.S. military in the next 25 years. According to that trajectory, a critical, climate-related event could be on the horizon within the next two decades. As recently as July 2015, a Department of Defense (DOD) report on the subject noted that “global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.” Since the last Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014—which clearly reiterated the threat posed by climate change—the U.S. military has accounted for climate change in all of its operational planning, highlighting the consensus among military leadership that the threat of climate change cannot be ignored. This consensus was reaffirmed in January 2017 by President Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, when he noted in written testimony during his confirmation hearings that climate change “can be a driver of instability” and that the challenge it poses “requires a broader, whole-of-government response.” Thus, even if American lawmakers are willing to play politics with a threat that is enormous in scale, senior U.S. military officials have consistently emphasized the necessity of confronting the global challenge of climate change.

That the U.S. military continues to plan for climate change as a national security threat casts serious doubt on the wisdom of withdrawing from the Paris agreement, or undermining the fight against climate change more broadly. Aside from the prospective withdrawal from the Paris accord, the Trump administration’s proposed budget includes massive cuts to agencies and programs that monitor climate change, which are critical to the U.S. military’s ability to adapt its operating doctrine to the uncertain demands of a changing climate. Thus, the decision to scale back these programs could potentially undermine the U.S. military’s ability to mitigate the risks that climate change poses to U.S. national security.

The instability wrought by climate change is already evident in places like YemenSomalia, Nigeria and South Sudan where recurring drought and famine continue to exacerbate long-running conflicts. Competition over diminishing resources and climate-related humanitarian crises serve to further undermine the stability of central governments in such countries, leaving populations vulnerable to exploitation by terror groups, militants, and other non-state actors. Should the U.S.—the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses—seek to undermine the global effort to combat climate change, such conflicts are likely to deteriorate, putting greater demands on a U.S. national security apparatus that is already stretched thin.


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