September 25, 2009

Weekly News Roundup: Climate Change Takes Center Stage

This week has been full of major speeches—and some action—on natural security. President Obama addressed these issues not once, but twice at the United Nations. Meanwhile, the EPA is taking action on carbon emissions, and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg discussed climate change in his keynote address at yesterday’s  launch of an awesome new CNAS report by some of our colleagues on U.S.-China relations.

President Obama addressed climate change and food security as two top global issues in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday. This marks a dramatic departure from a long-time focus on threats posed by other states and terrorism as the primary focus of such major presidential addresses. Indeed, the theme of his speech revolved around a “common future” where all countries take their “share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”  An articulated policy on transnational threats that calls for integrated action is a step forward in successfully dealing with climate change, and other natural security issues as well.

The previous day, President Obama delivered another speech on climate change specifically, this time delving into its consequences and possible preventative measures. He focused on rising sea levels, storms, climate refugees, drought and hunger, all of which highlighted the consequences of inaction. He specifically called for action because “the security and stability (emphasis mine) of each nation and all peoples—our prosperity, our health, our safety—are in jeopardy.” The linkage of climate change consequences to national security in presidential rhetoric is always encouraging.

The President’s emphasis on short-term energy goals (namely efficiency) and in addition to the longer-term goal of transitioning to alternative energy sources set up specific goals for the country to shoot for. In line with signaling out specific action items, this week the EPA took steps to measure carbon output from major U.S. emitters, a marked unilateral action. At the same time, the President did well to combine new domestic initiatives with emphasis on multilateral climate change solutions – most of all by working with key partners such as China.

It is clear that the Obama administration wants to “put climate at the top of [its] diplomatic agenda.” Deputy Secretary Steinberg expounded on this and other natural security issues (among other topics) in his keynote speech at the CNAS conference on China yesterday. He stressed the importance of cooperating with China to address climate change and other global challenges, in addition to making it clear that the United States hopes that China can avoid resource mercantilism as it continues natural resource extraction and procurement around the world.

However, we have yet to see what this renewed focus on the national security implications of climate change, energy, and other natural resources will bring. Will mandates institutionalize these new security concerns? What policy implications do these speeches have? Specifically, how do you translate these notions into action for the security community? The natural security team will be watching for answers to these questions in the months to come, and have a few projects underway to study these types of question that the Obama administration’s week of major speeches have aroused. As always, feel free to email us or comment below to weigh in on the issues.