Council Report Argues for New Policies to Protect National Security Interests from Consequences of Climate Change

November 30, 2007 12:59 pm (EST)

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December 3, 2007—Hurricane Katrina underscored how extreme weather events—which are expected to become more severe and more numerous with climate change—can overwhelm civilian disaster response capabilities and become national security issues. As climate negotiators gather in Bali, Indonesia, a new Council Special Report argues that new policies are needed at home and abroad in order to strengthen national security and reduce vulnerabilities to climate disasters.

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“Domestically, extreme weather events made more likely by climate change could endanger large numbers of people, damage critical infrastructure (including military installations), and require mobilization and diversion of military assets,” says report author Joshua W. Busby of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He argues that internationally, climate change could also lead to large-scale refugee and humanitarian crises and thus contribute to instability in other countries and regions.

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In order to minimize the worst possible security consequences of climate change, the report—Climate Change and National Security: An Agenda for Action—says that there are several policies the United States should support:

No Regrets: “The United States should prioritize so-called ‘no regrets’ policies, those that it would not regret having pursued even if the consequences of climate change prove less severe than feared,” Busby says. They include establishing comprehensive evacuation and relocation plans in response to natural disasters, particularly hurricanes; improving building codes for low-lying and coastal populations; and increasing water conservation efforts for agriculture and human consumption.

Invest in Infrastructure: Minimize security risks by improving domestic infrastructure, which will not only improve disaster responses, but will have a spillover benefit to the overall economy. “The United States should support this infrastructure investment program and dedicate a healthy portion to ‘climate proof’ vulnerable infrastructure, particularly in coastal areas,” says the report.

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Risk Reduction: When natural disasters strike, the United States and the international community will be called upon to intervene. It will be much more cost effective to support risk reduction and adaptation than it will be to respond when disasters happen. “The government effort should begin by providing incentives for individuals and firms to reduce risk, particularly through building codes and ensuring that federally funded disaster insurance discourages dangerous coastal settlements,” Busby says. 

Climate Change Diplomacy: Engage countries such as China and India to encourage a reduction in greenhouse gases. Climate damages are likely to exceed most governments’ adaptive capacities unless a major reduction in greenhouse gases takes place before the mid-twenty-first century. “While advanced industrialized countries bear historic responsibility for existing concentrations of greenhouse gases, China will be increasingly fingered as a climate culprit in the future,” Busby says. “This will create a common interest between the United States and China in avoiding world condemnation for being ‘climate villains.’ Enlightened climate diplomacy could build on that common interest to improve U.S.-China relations.”

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Institutional Reforms: Integrate climate security into the National Security Strategy; create a deputy undersecretary of defense position for environmental security at the Department of Defense; and create new positions in the National Security Council and the office of the president so climate security concerns get the attention they deserve.  “The importance of climate policy to national security demands that it receive much greater prioritization across the U.S. federal government,” Busby says. “Other players in the federal government have largely been sidelined. There are few efforts to integrate climate concerns into top-level decision-making.”

“The policy proposals presented here…have the potential to strengthen national security by reducing U.S. vulnerabilities to climate change at home and abroad, securing and stabilizing important partners, and contributing to other goals such as energy security and industrial revitalization. In a world of new security challenges, forging a climate policy along these lines must be a national priority,” the report concludes.

Full text of the report, including recommendations, is available on the Council’s website at

Joshua W. Busby is an assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and is affiliated with the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, both at the University of Texas at Austin. He has a BA from both the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and the University of East Anglia, and he received his MA and PhD from Georgetown University.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives,  journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


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