28 April 2021
  • climate security
  • Joe Biden
  • Vladimir Putin
  • Adaption
  • Climate Adaption
  • Climate resilience

Biden's Earth Day summit highlights the importance of climate security

Climate security occupied a prominent place amongst the agenda of politicians and luminaries during US President Joe Biden's 'Earth Day' climate summit. The two-day event saw over 40 world leaders convene to reconfirm and expand their commitments to fighting climate change. Whilst undoubtedly it was the reduction of emissions that formed the core messages of many, day two saw a dedicated panel chaired by US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin III, on the importance of recognising climate risks as a legitimate threat to global security.


Growing Importance

The election of Joe Biden has sparked an expected reversal of US climate policy. The decision to immediately re-enter the Paris Agreement, issue federal moratoriums on new oil drilling and host a special summit is a welcome turn in leadership on climate compared to the Trump presidency. Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, announced that a 'National Intelligence Estimate' would be conducted, wherein the 18 intelligence agencies of the country would provide an assessment on the security impact of climate change. The initiative would help accelerate climate mainstreaming within national security sectors. However, the opinion of many is that a return to US leadership was not enough; other nations need to take a larger role.

Encouraging signs include the organisation of a special meeting at the UN Security Council in February on the issue, convened by the United Kingdom. In anticipation of the COP-26 being held in Glasgow later this year, UK Secretary of Defence, Ben Wallace, discussed the steps made by the country in climate-proofing its military capabilities and operations. Examples such as the reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions by 95% and the 'greenification' of military estates domestically are strong first steps, but Britain's ambition to take a serious leadership role was highlighted in their recent 'Climate-Defence Roadmap', a fuller analysis of which can be found here.


Operational Risks

A strong theme that also came to the forefront was the danger that climate change posed to defence assets and the operational capability of armed forces. Japanese Minister of Defence, Kishi Nobuo, noted that the rise in frequency and unpredictability of rains and flooding has stretched the Japanese Self-Defence Forces thin, with the country having to commit reserves to support disaster response and humanitarian relief efforts. Over a million personnel were involved in these operations in 2018 and 2019, moving assets away from traditional security situations that require attention, weakening the country's ability to meet all threats on its risk matrix adequately.

The United States echoed this call, with Secretary Austin discussing the role climate has on damaging military assets. Examples such as Hurricane Michael's impact on Tyndall Air Base in Florida and the forced cancellation of joint exercises with Japan and Australia due to a prolonged typhoon season in 2019, offer a snapshot into the variety and complexity of risks associated with climate security. The financial cost in particular, could easily run into the trillions, and thus urgent adaption and resilience efforts are needed to ease operational pressures.


The Multiplier effect

NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, also highlighted the need to climate-proof NATO military activities. Urgency in action was required, as climate change acted as a 'crisis multiplier' and accelerator. Climate crises do not act in individual vacuums and have devastating knock-on effects on regions distant from the epicentre. Spanish Defence Minister, Margarita Robles-Fernandez, highlighted the knock-on effect of global emissions on the availability of resources, which in turn drives conflicts between nomadic and agricultural groups in North and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Nowhere has this been felt more than within Iraq.It has suffered from security crises for the past 30 years and is seriously feeling the implications of climate change. Desertification, limited access to clean water, pollution and flooding all are worsening the situation on the ground and promoting more communal friction. Iraqi Minister for Defence, Juma Inad, indicated that youth unemployment has spiked to over 60%, driven by a collapsing agricultural sector, which is pushing many towards 'crime and terrorism'. Additional pressures on the nation's electricity grid in the impending global energy transition mean that vital national infrastructure is under threat and an inability to climate-proof could destabilize the country further. The contribution from Iraq is a stark reminder of how interconnected climate change is to security and how a confluence of threats can accelerate destabilization. To read more about the impact of climate on Iraq's security, click here for the PSI's latest reporting.


Other Highlights

Outside of climate security, the global powers made renewed commitments to cutting back emissions. President Biden announced greenhouse gas emissions gas cuts of 50-52% of 2005 levels by 2030, essentially doubling the US's previous commitment. Other allies such as Canada and Japan, echoed this, by announcing emissions cuts of almost double the Paris Agreement. EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, used the summit to announce that the 27 member states had agreed a tentative climate deal to make the bloc carbon-neutral by 2050 and earmarked €1.8 trillion for climate financing over the next 30 years.

On the other hand, many of the other poles of global power were less forward about their commitments. Chinese President Xi Jinping did not offer any new cuts, instead committing to 'strictly control' and 'phase down' coal power as part of the domestic energy usage portfolio. Brazilian Minister for the Environment, Ricardo Salles, announced a new plan to combat illegal deforestation by 2030 on behalf of absent President Jair Bolsanaro. The Brazilian President has been a vocal climate change sceptic, and the plan demanded that the the US pay Brasilia $1 billion a year to fund a restructuring of the National Police, land regularisation and ecological zoning. It should be noted that Bolsanaro previously rejected a $20bn offer from the international community to fund Amazon preservation. 

Of most interest however was the statement made by Russian President, Vladimir Putin. A day before the summit, Putin used his state of the nation speech to urge all levels of government to reduce Russian emissions to below EU levels by 2030. Russia's commitment to a 'large-scale campaign for environmental modernisation and greater energy efficiency across all economic sectors' seemed to strike a genuine tone and there is scope that Russia is more engaged with support climate change efforts, especially given the recent recognition of the impact of permafrost melting in Northern Russia. Putin's warming to climate change agendas may also provide space to ease conflict or security situations. A day before the summit, Putin announced that Russian troops, which had been massing on the Ukrainian border, would be pulled back. Whilst full cooperation seems a remote possibility, the usage of climate as a way to foster greater US-Russian dialogue could be the tool to ease tension situations globally.

By Akash Ramnath

Photo credits: Aaron Kittredge/Pexels