Climate change is a threat to national security

February 9, 2016 Stephen Macekura
Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

This series of Issue 2 response posts are written by former Miller Center fellows who offer their perspective on the topic of national security and how to best prepare the next president for the challenges of the first year.

As Michéle Flournoy writes, the new president coming into office in 2017 will face a diverse array of challenges: terrorism; potential conflicts with Russia and China; deepening turmoil in the Middle East; and divisive partisanship and budgetary constraints. More new challenges will emerge, too. As all the Issue 2 essays show, any new president must prepare for the uncertain and unknown events that are sure to come.

Amid these many challenges, the new president must also address another pressing issue of global significance: climate change.

Global climate change is a serious threat to national security now and in the future; it is also profoundly dangerous and difficult to manage. The new president will come to power as countries from around the world work to implement the new, innovative, and incomplete climate change agreement signed last month in Paris. The agreement is only a starting point—a floor, not a ceiling, to paraphrase Secretary of State John Kerry’s words. The next administration will be tasked with building and expanding on President Obama’s climate initiatives at home while generating continued international cooperation over the agreement abroad. 

My own research suggests that this will be a deeply challenging task, as the root international political issues have persisted for decades and go largely unanswered in the new climate accord.

So how can a new president reasonably contend with all of the challenges Flournoy lays out in addition to global climate change? Looking to the past, the new president may not find much reason for hope. These essays suggest that most presidents have not done very well in their first year in office. But the essays do point to a set of common themes (or lessons). In particular, the next president will need a coherent strategy, a clear process and strong personnel, and a disposition towards caution and reflection. The new president would do well apply these lessons to climate change as well.

The need for a coherent strategy

The incoming president should make contending with climate change part of a clearly defined strategy. Many essays here lament the absence of a clear and coherent strategy in past president’s first years. Jeremi Suri and Marc Selverstone castigate the Clinton and Kennedy administrations for a lack of strategic vision to define their foreign policy. Neither Kennedy nor Clinton showed much interest in articulating a coherent strategy, opting instead to respond to events as they emerged. In addition, Hal Brands argues that while Reagan had (at least in his own mind) the makings of a coherent strategy, the inability to have his advisers agree on strategic purpose led to gridlock over his major initiatives. Similarly, Melvyn P. Leffler notes that Bush 43 articulated a strategy, but it was so broad that it gave little insight to determining priorities or linking means to ends. These presidents’ lack of articulated strategy created conceptual confusion for their subordinates, made it difficult to explain their decisions to the public, and clouded their thinking about international priorities. A foreign policy strategy, these authors imply, needs to specific, clear, and widely shared among the president’s team.

The next president must articulate a strategy for U.S. foreign policy that features climate change and present a clear plan for how to deal with climate change. While a majority of Americans view climate change as a serious problem, they are deeply divided over how to manage it. The Republican Party leadership continues to express general skepticism of climate change at all. Given this context, it is particularly important for the new president to present a broader strategic vision that places climate change as a core concern. Doing so would not be difficult; Secretary of State Kerry and the Defense Department have already linked climate change to U.S. national security in vivid ways. The next president should develop and present a strategy that connects climate change to core national interests, lay out a plan for how to mitigate its worst effects, and offer a roadmap for how to continue international cooperation over the issue (especially over finding ways to finance the agreement). 

Having a Clear Policymaking Process

Making effective climate change policy depends on many executive agencies, Congress, the courts—not to mention every country in the world. The next president should understand how to make and implement effective climate change policy. It is clear from these essays that thinking deeply about how to manage the national security bureaucracy is a fundamental necessity for an effective foreign policy.

Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43 all had some of their biggest policy initiatives undercut by problems of policymaking process. There is a clear need to streamline existing institutions, clarify roles, and follow through in reinforcing the authority of existing institutions and positions. Brands, Zelikow, and Flournoy single out the National Security Advisor as a key role—having a strong adviser with a more tightly controlled (and smaller) National Security Council is one way to bring clarity to the bureaucratic mess.

Making effective climate change policy will require the new president to identify a process that takes into account domestic initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and the new international accord, expands and coordinates the work of other agencies (such as State and Defense) that have long worked on climate issues, and nurtures ties with willing partners in Congress and key allies abroad. Planning ahead about how to achieve this streamlined policymaking—a key lesson across almost every essay—will likely determine the success of any climate change strategy. 

Displaying caution amid pressures to do the opposite

Lastly, these essays warn a new president about moving too quickly to distance his or herself from his or her predecessor. Caution, reflection, and circumspection: these are three attributes rarely celebrated in a political culture that lionizes boldness and decisiveness. But these essays attest to the value of speaking softly and carrying a small-to-medium sized stick. Indeed, the president often needs to act as a bulwark against a hellacious political culture that demands rapid action to any major event, with pundits often demanding any action at all as preferable to a calculated pause. But thoughtful restraint can bring strategic benefits. Jeffrey A. Engel aptly celebrates George H.W. Bush’s willingness to stay relatively uninvolved in Eastern Europe during the revolutions of 1989.

By contrast, moving boldly—either to accede to the caprice of political culture or, more often, to distance one’s administration from a predecessor—has often hindered effective leadership. Leffler notes that Bush 43 and his advisers often ignored warnings from Clinton holdovers and sought to separate his goals from the Clinton administration’s biggest initiatives. One of the most vivid examples of this came from the unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. The move set back U.S. leadership on climate change for a decade and half (from which the Obama administration has only recently begun to recover).

If a Republican comes into office, he/she will face tremendous pressure from within their own party to leave the agreement and roll back President Obama’s many other environmental initiatives. But such actions would be foolish. Withdrawing from this agreement would greatly undermine global climate governance, impair U.S. relations with key allies in Europe and Asia, and hamper domestic initiatives to confront climate change. 

In sum, global climate change will remain a pressing a challenge for the new president, but these essays point to some valuable lessons that the next leader can follow to make the first year in office more effective. Whoever comes into the Oval Office should make climate change a clear part of their strategic framework. The next president should also clearly and consistently explain to the public why the issue demands such attention. Finally, he or she should develop a coherent policymaking process and critically analyze both the strengths and weaknesses of the new agreement. Doing so matters not just for the success of the president’s first year, but for the future of climate governance as well.

Stephen Macekura is Assistant Professor of International Studies in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. His first book, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century, has just been published by Cambridge University Press. He is now working on a book about the meaning and measurement of economic growth in the twentieth century. He received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 2013, and he was a Miller Center National Fellow in 2012-2013.