A ‘Responsibility to Prepare’: A Strategy for Presidential Leadership on the Security Risks of Climate Change


Presidential candidates are offering their plans on climate change, and it’s a competition over who’s the most ambitious. That’s good news, given that it’s a major security threat that requires a major response. Thus far, most of the candidates’ plans understandably focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a low-carbon economy. These steps are critically important, not least because the world will likely experience significant security disruptions in the future if the scale and scope of climate change are not reduced. But this is only half a strategy. Indeed, if there is a silver lining to climate change and the attendant security risks, it’s that we can see many of these changes coming. American scientists, the U.S. government (see this administration’s National Climate Assessment) and private industry have all shown they are capable of modeling climate change futures with a high degree of certainty compared to other trends. A climate model from 1967 still has a strong predictive capacity. Exxon’s own internal calculations and climate modeling from 1982 about where emissions would likely be in the future, including by 2020, were fairly spot-on. A political scientist in 1967 or 1982 would have had much more difficulty predicting what the political landscape would look like in 2020 than she or he would have making predictions about the climate.

Herein lies the opportunity: While the United States faces the unprecedented risk of climate change, it also has unprecedented foresight capabilities. Whoever takes office after the next election will have a responsibility to defend the United States from those foreseeable security threats — a “responsibility to prepare” that should underpin the president’s strategy on climate. This strategy should involve presidential leadership both on addressing climate change as a distinct security priority — a “Climate Security Plan” — and on integrating climate change into other security priorities — what we call the “Just Add Climate” approach.

Growing Security Threats

Sea level rise and storm surge, ocean warming, drought, wildfires, glacier melt, and shifting rain patterns are already impacting both the geostrategic landscape and the national security of the United States. These climate-driven changes are causing major damage to U.S. military bases around the world and civilian communities that support them, increasing the likelihood of conflict in strategically important regions, contributing to mass displacements of peoples in the Middle East and elsewhere, and adding to U.S. tensions with Russia and China in strategic waterways such as the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea.

In 2018 alone, damage from extreme weather to two Air Force bases and one Marine Corps base added up to over $8 billion. Some of these bases are still recovering from the last hurricane season, and with the next season imminent, they are even more vulnerable than usual, like a patient just out of surgery. And these bases aren’t islands. They rely on neighboring communities for electricity, water, wastewater treatment, communications, housing, civilian employees, and more.

The Good and Bad News

The good news is that there’s no need to start addressing these problems from scratch. The United States has been grappling with them for some time. For 12 straight years, across Republican and Democratic administrations, the director of national intelligence has sat before Congress and presented the facts on how climate change is stressing the security landscape. In the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified that “[c]hanges in the frequency and variability of heat waves, droughts, and floods — combined with poor governance practices — are increasing water and food insecurity around the world, increasing the risk of social unrest, migration, and interstate tension.”

The same clear-eyed assessments have been produced by the Department of Defense since 2003. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act stated, that“climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States” and directed the secretary of defense to report on the top 10 most threatened military installations for each service and to outline how climate change will affect the military’s combatant commands over the next 20 years. Congress, communities, and the military are increasingly concerned about these mounting risks and are putting in place assessments and plans to get ahead of those risks.

The bad news is that although the U.S. government has laid groundwork for a more robust approach to the security implications of climate change, it still lags far behind in dealing with this enormous security challenge. It’s time to raise the ambition level with a “responsibility to prepare” strategy, including a Climate Security Plan and a “Just Add Climate” approach.

A Climate Security Plan: Addressing Climate Change as a Distinct Security Priority

A Climate Security Plan, undergirded by strong presidential leadership, should emphasize reducing the risk to populations and critical infrastructure before storms hit, before wildfires are lit, and before wells run dry, in order to manage the wide-ranging impacts of climate change on the international security landscape. As we highlighted in a recent report, this plan should include three key elements: assess, prepare, and support.

Assess: The first step is to continuously assess the risks that climate change poses to national security.  Just as good intelligence helps to prepare the battlefield and inform a military leader’s decision-making, understanding how climate change will shape the global and local environments in which the U.S. operates will help chart the course forward.

This should include the creation of an interagency Climate Security Crisis Watch Center to facilitate annual, in-depth assessments of the security risks of climate change. Such a center could consider  the full range of climate change projections and ensure that the associated risks are incorporated into all national strategic documents and assessments of critical military and civilian infrastructure. These climate projections could be used to inform new mission requirements, such as expanded military operations in the Arctic and increased humanitarian and disaster assistance demands. The center could also facilitate the adoption of government-wide approaches to climate security risk assessments.

Prepare: Second, a Climate Security Plan should direct the national security enterprise to prepare, in a big way, for climate change risks. It is one thing to recognize and talk about the threat that storm surge poses to floodwalls around a drydock where the military’s repairing a $2 billion submarine. It is quite another to make investments in raising those floodwalls to reduce the threat. The president’s plan should significantly elevate the leadership and resources devoted to addressing climate security risks across the U.S. national and homeland security enterprise.

Leadership at the top is crucial, starting with the appointment of a senior White House official for climate security, reporting directly to the president, to lead an all-hands-on-deck effort to combat the threat at home and abroad.

Resources should also be ramped up. The United States will need to invest heavily in the climate resilience of its critical military and civilian infrastructure, such as the highly flood-prone (and sinking) Hampton Roads region of Virginia, home to 29 military sites from all the armed service branches and a critical hub for international military deployments. Such an effort would both bolster national security and create long-lasting employment opportunities. In the face of increasing threats from extreme weather events and wildfires, the plan should involve a comprehensive program to repair, construct, fortify, and responsibly site the nation’s interconnected military, energy, transportation, agriculture, water, and commerce infrastructure.



The United States will also need to be prepared for changing geostrategic conditions internationally. The melting Arctic, for example, is an emerging theater of operations where the Navy and Coast Guard will increasingly be required to operate, particularly as U.S. adversaries such as Russia increase their military and commercial presence there. Further, with more significant natural disasters expected due to climate change, U.S. civilian and defense agencies must prepare for an increased scale and tempo of humanitarian and disaster relief operations, and any security consequences that could follow. Diplomatically, in addition to the low-hanging fruit of rejoining the voluntary Paris Agreement, a Climate Security Plan should elevate leaders addressing these risks, whether by advancing the issue at the UN Security Council or appointing a Special Envoy for Climate and Security at the State Department to address the impact of climate-related security issues on U.S. foreign policy interests.

Support: Finally, the United States must be prepared to support its allies and partners in addressing these risks. This is critical not just for dealing with climate change, but also for enhancing U.S. leadership and influence in the world. Sea level rise and flooding impose existential threats on island nations and low-lying coastal areas, with potentially catastrophic consequences to billions of people. Water scarcity, food insecurity, economic displacement, and consequent migration are reshaping the globe and impacting U.S. interests. Fragile states, as well as brittle states that seem stable but rest on an increasingly strained natural resource foundation, are vulnerable to climate change impacts and will struggle to meet basic needs, leading to humanitarian crises and increased risks of state instability and conflict, as well as creating opportunities for non-state actors that could pose threats to the United States.

A Climate Security Plan should include a major initiative to enhance the resilience of these nations.  China is already expanding its influence by doing just that — embracing the climate goals of U.S. allies, providing direct and tangible assistance to climate-vulnerable nations, and securing influence through clean energy investments. To begin, the president should task the national security advisor to work with the secretary of defense and secretary of state on regional climate security initiatives — unified interagency plans that fully support U.S. national security, defense, foreign policy, and development strategies in critical regions such as the Asia-Pacific and the Americas. These initiatives should involve significant U.S. investments in the climate resilience of nations at risk, as a means of both strengthening these countries and expanding U.S. alliances and partnerships.

Just Add Climate: Integrating Climate Change into Other Security Priorities

As history has taught us, however, foresight doesn’t automatically translate into action. If climate change forecasts aren’t reaching national security decision-makers, the United States will be left fundamentally unprepared. A Climate Security Plan should therefore be followed by a major effort to integrate climate change into existing security analysis and priorities –  in other words, to bring climate issues to the national security “big kids’ table.”

In 2010 — following massive political instability in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — a State Department assessment concluded that Syria was one of the “least likely” states in the Middle East and North Africa to be roiled by unrest. Clearly, that was wrong. What may have been missing from the analysis was that an extreme drought, following rapidly increasing precipitation decline in the region since the early 1970s, contributed to the displacement of millions of farmers and herders in Syria, making the country more brittle than it appeared. Perhaps if knowledge of climate and natural resource insecurity had been more extensive in the rooms where that assessment was made, the United States would have been better prepared.

This example highlights that in order to make U.S. forecasting about the geopolitical landscape more accurate, climate factors need to be integrated into threat assessments. We call this the “just add climate” approach. This starts with the U.S. president calling on senior national security personnel to ask better questions about how climate change is going to affect other critical U.S. security priorities.

What, for example, will increased water and food scarcity in North Korea or Iran mean for those countries’ domestic decision-making, and how might that impact regional security? We are already seeing the dramatic implications of climate change for Lake Urmia in Iran — a critical water source for the country’s major agricultural sector — and political tension as a result. What’s our plan for addressing this, and how does it square with other U.S. national security objectives vis-à-vis Iran? The answers aren’t clear yet.

Will competition over migrating fish stocks, due to climate change and over-fishing, increase interstate tensions in a warming South China Sea (as Jeffrey Ringhausen at the Office of Naval Intelligence has alluded to), and if so, will that increase the likelihood of tension and conflict between the Chinese and American navies? Current evidence suggests that this is indeed a risk, but there is no discernable strategy for anticipating or mitigating such a plausible scenario.

How much is climate change emboldening U.S. adversaries and competitors? As noted by Peter Kiemel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, China is stepping in to provide assistance to countries in Africa that are dealing with climate-driven changes in disease vectors that may become epidemics. This may be increasing China’s influence in the region. Does the United States have a competing plan to support its partners and prospective allies in Africa, or is it content with taking a back seat? Climate change is not just creating new transnational security challenges; it is also affecting traditional great power competition dynamics. A responsibility to prepare strategy needs to “just add climate” variables to those traditional security debates. If U.S. national security decision-makers ignore climate dynamics, they won’t be adequately prepared to compete with great powers on the world stage.

The intelligence community has also brought to light the question of how terrorist organizations are exploiting climate-exacerbated water stress to gain leverage over their adversaries, including the United States and its allies. Do U.S. policymakers fully understand how climate change intersects with global terrorism, and are those links factoring into U.S. policies and plans?

Many of these questions are not yet being asked (or answered sufficiently) by the U.S. government in a comprehensive way. Whoever is president in 2020 will need to ask these questions in earnest, demand answers, and start making plans for addressing them.


As the window for acting decisively on climate change continues to close, America’s elected leaders will need to start putting their money (and their plans) where their mouth is. Intelligence and defense leaders have been warning about climate security risks for decades, but the response has not been commensurate to the threat. A robust Climate Security Plan, along with a climate-proofing of other national security policies, is a must in this age of unprecedented climate risks, especially for the person most responsible for the security of the United States. And since we can see it coming, there’s no excuse for inaction. The commander-in-chief has a responsibility to prepare the country for this threat.



Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia are CEOs of the Council on Strategic Risks and Co-Founders of the Center for Climate and Security. They are co-authors of “Did We See It Coming?: State Fragility, Climate Vulnerability, and the Uprisings in Syria and Egypt.”

John Conger is Director of the Center for Climate and Security. He is the former U.S. Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and the former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense (Energy, Installations & Environment).


Image: North American Aerospace Defense Command