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A Whole-of-Government Approach to Climate Change: Assessing DoD’s Role

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Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden presented an executive order for “a whole-of-government approach to put climate change at the center of our domestic, national security, and foreign policy.” “Every agency,” declared one of his advisors, “is a climate agency now.” While some executive agencies have long cooperated on climate issues, the Biden Administration aims to incorporate the Department of Defense (DoD), which has historically worked on such efforts only in the context of military readiness. DoD support to the whole-of-government could include using defense satellites to monitor climate emissions, a service some U.S. partners and allies are beginning to provide, though not with the consistency required for comprehensive coverage. Potential DoD engagement would support both military readiness and civilian climate initiatives, but is it worth it if it comes at the expense of traditional defense priorities?

Advocates of a whole-of-government approach argue that the sheer scale of  climate issues necessitates a joint approach. A unified effort will also send a strong clear signal of U.S. commitment to international partners. On the other hand, critics of whole-of-government policies do not necessarily oppose climate change efforts, but they argue that more is possible by dividing duties and letting each agency focus on its comparative advantage. Intelligence agencies, for instance, can draw on information not available in open sources to address specific questions about foreign leaders’ private thinking on international climate proposals.

With its massive budget, worldwide presence, and investment in advanced technologies, DoD is well-poised to participate in climate policies. Defense officials under the Trump and Biden administrations have devoted increased attention to planning for climate change prevention and resiliency. However, DoD’s current climate approach is internal, designed to ensure that the department can protect military assets and continue operations in the face of climate disturbances. The department’s most recent climate agenda continues to prioritize in-house initiatives with minimal discussion of engaging with civilian agencies, but a proposed Congressional bill may compel DoD to take on a larger role in the Biden Administration’s emissions reduction targets.

Satellite climate monitoring identifies major risk areas for climate disturbances and offers highly-accurate emissions information. Using DoD space-based assets for these functions would aid in better military planning as well as support civilian climate efforts by providing data on high-emitting countries. Examples of civilian initiatives that could benefit from more robust data sources include naming and shaming countries falling below emissions targets, supporting schemes for emissions pricing or carbon trading, or promoting better regulation on high-emitting industries. This idea attracted remarkable attention at the 2021 COP26 summit where experts demonstrated satellite tracking of greenhouse gas emissions via high-precision cameras equipped with infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet detectors to measure atmospheric gas composition and proportions of climate-harming gases like methane, ozone, or carbon monoxide. U.S. partners in Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency (ESA) already have some climate monitoring satellites in orbit,  but global coverage remains patchwork.  

Space-based climate monitoring provides a holistic and verifiable source of climate data. To date, most of the available information on international emissions are obtained via self-reporting or are estimated based on rough calculations of industrial and agricultural activities. This approach, however, creates an incentive for states to misrepresent their emissions data, since it is costly and difficult for independent investigators to conduct the kind of constant, localized monitoring needed to verify self-reporting. But satellite monitoring may make such mass verification possible. The TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument on the ESA’s Sentinel-5P, for example, takes measurements of the entire Earth’s surface twice a month to detect greenhouse gas levels and in June 2021 detected a massive methane leak in Russia that had gone unreported by domestic officials. More reliable data systems create a better baseline for climate diplomacy efforts by the U.S. and its allies, including naming and shaming of high emitters.

As one of the largest owners of satellites currently in orbit, DoD could be one of the most efficient and systematic monitors of emissions from space-based systems. Such a large influx of emissions detection sources would offset two major limitations of the existing climate coverage regime: First, there are not enough satellites for continuous monitoring of the earth’s surface, potentially allowing major leaks to go undetected; and second, widespread monitoring of atmospheric gases and precision monitoring of particular high-emitting sites are not currently integrated into the same system of data collection and storage.

Opponents of DoD engagement in whole-of-government efforts argue that such issues are simply not a top-of-mind concern for defense officials. Requiring DoD participation in national climate strategies would mean devoting attention to an expanded basket of threats rather than a narrow focus on immediate concerns, such as deterring Russian and Chinese aggression. These critics further argue that plans bringing in both civilian and military entities inevitably lose strategic clarity on what exactly each agency should be doing – in other words, “coordination can drive out strategy.”

Two tradeoffs immediately emerge from this debate. The first is risking compromised national defense through funds and attention diverted from conventional threats versus ensuring U.S. climate security and resiliency. The second is focusing on defending DoD assets and operations versus investing in whole-of-government interoperability, an undertaking that would require harmonizing technical systems and bringing civilian officials into training and strategic planning.

These tradeoffs will have tangible effects on U.S. security policies, and DoD is understandably concerned about those implications. But while politically-appointed defense officials have paid lip-service to supporting the president’s whole-of-government agenda, they have thus far continued a siloed approach to climate issues. One possible reason for the delay is that top defense planners see greater strategic value in the division of responsibilities among U.S. agencies. Another potential explanation is that DoD officials anticipate a change of administration in 2025 and a return to more conservative climate policies. Ultimately, however, the tenets of a civilian-controlled military mean that these organizational and strategic priorities are out of DoD’s control. President Biden has made it clear that he is prioritizing climate resiliency across both civilian and military agencies. By putting forward a unified climate strategy document, the White House can lean on DoD to join a whole-of-government effort.



About the Author: 

Kathryn Urban is a current graduate student in the School of International Service’s Global Governance, Politics, and Security program. Her research interests include Arctic securitization and the strategic logic of drone warfare.