Climate Change & National Security
In 2006, it was clear that climate solutions would remain elusive unless growing numbers of moderate and conservative leaders agreed that something must be done to address climate change. As RFF staff engaged in discussions of how best to bridge the ideological and regional gaps that prevent agreement over climate policy, they understood that if the issue’s military and security dimensions could be explained, more conservatives might support the need to act.
The right group to catalyze and organize those military voices didn’t yet exist, and the right messages weren’t yet clear. But we moved forward anyway, hiring consultants and starting the National Security and Climate Change Project, with a partnership of ten funders.
We worked with a highly credible defense contractor, which in turn pulled together a team of eleven retired military officers. These were three- and four-star admirals and generals – a group that included the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, the former commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, an astronaut and an ambassador to China. The group met many times over a 14-month period, ultimately producing a groundbreaking report detailing the ways climate change is a threat to America’s national security.
The consulting team helped generate visibility and ensure that all elements of the national security community understood the powerful messages in the report. Several of the military leaders testified before Congress, and media coverage was substantial. The subsequent Department of Defense budget, signed by President Bush, required the federal government to produce a National Intelligence Estimate to gauge the security risks of climate change. That NIE drew the same conclusions as our report – but did so with the backing of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
The notion that climate change represents a national security threat now holds a significant place in public dialogue. More Americans have a reason to embrace climate solutions – without having to embrace the full environmental agenda.
The Project was ad hoc and created a new opportunity and field of inquiry. As a project of the Rockefeller Family Fund – possible only because of our hybrid status – the work was fast and cost-efficient. Our flexibility allowed the team to develop the best messages and deploy the best messengers. The notion of “climate security” was named one of the Best New Ideas for 2007 by The New York Times. And the Project’s influence continues, as the report and the concept of climate security still generates significant media coverage and policy attention. Even without RFF funding, follow-up reports have been issued, and many of the military leaders remain thoroughly and publicly engaged.
- Sometimes a leap of faith is required. We had no way of knowing what this expert group’s findings would be.
- It’s helpful to know the difference: Are we trying to establish a new group or a new idea?