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Pentagon to skip global climate conference, despite ‘existential threat’

The Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. (Dreamstime/TNS)
October 31, 2021

Defense Department officials will not attend the global climate conference in Scotland that begins Sunday, despite the recent Pentagon report calling climate change an “existential threat” to national security.

By not attending the conference as part of the presidential delegation, former defense officials said, the Pentagon is giving up the chance to make a statement on the world stage that climate change is important to the American national security enterprise.

“Given in the last nine or 10 months, the level of public effort that the Defense Department has made…to try to get out in front of this issue, I think it’s a missed opportunity,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who served as the oceanographer and navigator of the Navy. “I’m sure they have their reasons, and they may be great reasons, but my initial reaction is that’s unfortunate. It’s too bad.”

The Conference of the Parties, or COP, is the United Nations’ annual climate change conference. The 26th edition of the annual summit will begin on Oct. 31 in Glasgow and last for two weeks. As global temperatures continue to rise, this year’s summit will focus on negotiations to limit emissions, and could be “the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control,” according to the summit’s website.

There is no security-focused programming listed on the summit’s site. The core program focuses on priorities such as finance, energy, adaptation, innovation, and gender equity. Other events on the sidelines include panels on climate justice, how sports can combat rising temperatures, and the role indigenous people play in protecting the climate.

President Joe Biden is expected to attend the conference for the World Leaders Summit on Monday and Tuesday, according to the White House schedule.

Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told Defense One that no one from the Defense Department will accompany the president, but said officials “remain hard at work building climate resilience throughout the department and the force.”

Though Pentagon officials will not be in Glasgow, they are ramping up their public appearances to talk about climate change in Washington. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, and Joseph Bryan, the Defense Department’s senior advisor for climate, are participating in a New America event on Friday to talk about the Pentagon’s new climate report. And Kathleen Hicks, the Pentagon’s number two, talked with NPR on Tuesday about the significant risk a warming climate poses for national security.

“Climate change is really increasing the number and frequency of missions that we’re executing here at DOD,” Hicks said. “Severe drought has led to increasing fire seasons, lengthening of fire seasons. It’s to the point where our National Guard bureau chief has started to talk about fire season becoming fire year.”

It’s unclear whether other security-focused officials are attending the conference. The State Department did not return a request for comment on the matter.

But even if they are, a State Department official attending is different than a defense official doing so, especially if that person is in uniform. Titley, who attended the COP in 2009, 2010, and 2011 as the founding director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, said the most important part of being there was simply walking around in uniform to send a visible message that climate change was a priority for America’s national security community.

“I was a two-star admiral. I showed up in uniform and people were amazed to find out the United States military cared,” he said. “One of the things I would do after the formal stuff was just walk around in my uniform in the area where all the NGOs set up, and just about every one of them wanted to talk to me to understand why does the U.S. military care.”

Even though the idea that climate change is a national security threat has gained traction in the decade since Titley last attended the conference, he still thinks it’s important for the Defense Department to have a presence there because spending the time and resources for a senior official to travel shows a level of commitment to the cause beyond just releasing a report.

“They should be part of the delegation,” he said. “Security is not the only reason, but it is one of the important components of why we should care. This is not just about polar bears. This is about us.”

John Conger, who leads the Center for Climate and Security, agreed it is a missed opportunity to not have a Defense Department representative at the conference. But Conger also said he doesn’t believe it means the Biden administration is not prioritizing climate change, especially since others in the government might be more prepared for the emissions negotiations that will be a centerpiece of the summit.

“The role of the Defense Department, as you saw on display over the last few weeks, [is that] they did an adaptation plan saying, ‘This is how we’re going to deal with climate change,'” said Conger, who previously served as the Pentagon comptroller. “The negotiations on getting lower emissions levels are important, but it’s somebody else’s job. The federal government is sufficiently big that not everyone has to do every job.”

There are existing international organizations that help the global national security community talk about climate change, including the United Nations Climate Security Mechanism and NATO, which has taken an increased interest in the problem. In the past, major conferences, such as the Munich Security Conference, have also chosen to focus one particular year on a deep discussion of climate and security.

Other experts said the choice not to send any defense officials was made by the organizers, not the Pentagon. Sharon Burke, a former assistant defense secretary for operational energy, said officials in the host country “made a deliberate decision” to not include climate security as part of the conference, to keep negotiators focused on the critical negotiations about emissions levels.

But Burke also speculated that avoiding discussions about climate security could help draw China and India into the discussions. Because China is the top carbon-dioxide emitter and India is third, any effective deal to improve climate change will require their buy-in.

“China and India don’t like the idea of climate security,” said Burke, who also served on the defense, national security, and foreign policy agency review teams during Biden’s transition into office. “It’s game over if you don’t have China and India willing to come to the table to negotiate….The last thing you need is to bring something else controversial into the mix that won’t help you with the core negotiations.”

But if the Pentagon’s absence was part of an effort to appease some of the biggest polluters, it seems to have been in vain. Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend the summit, suggesting the leader is uninterested in another global climate pact, though lower-level officials from Beijing are expected to attend. Because Xi and Biden will not have an opportunity to meet at the conference, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced Tuesday that the two leaders are planning a virtual meeting before the end of the year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the climate conference, Reuters reported.

Burke also argued that progress on any climate-change mitigation, including cutting emissions and limiting temperature increases, will ultimately help the military address growing concerns about protecting base infrastructure from dangerous natural disasters and operating in increasingly harsher conditions.

“There may not be a meeting room with climate security written on the door [at COP], but when they’re talking about adaptation, they are talking about climate security,” she said.

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