The Securitization of Climate Change – Is Biden Turning Climate Change Into a Security Issue?
by Hanna Thiele and Christine Hassemer
“We’re talking about national security and America leading the world in a clean energy future.”The White House 2021b
With these words, President Biden sought to catapult climate policy into the realm of security and in turn increase the importance and urgency of the subject matter. During his campaign, he had already made climate change one of his top priorities and presented a climate plan as part of his agenda. Biden showed the American public his vision of a clean and innovative nation at the forefront of the battle against the biggest threat to humanity.
In this blog post, we will analyze how the Biden Administration is aiming to elevate climate policy to a security issue. Biden’s position seems to be clear: “I’m signing today an executive order to supercharge our administration’s ambitious plan to confront the existential threat of climate change. And it is an existential threat” (The White House 2021b). We will examine how far Biden has come with elevating climate change to a security issue by answering this guiding question: Where in the process of securitization is Biden right now?
In this short essay, we apply the concept of ‘securitization’, which is an extension of the classical, narrow concept of security, to the Biden administration’s climate policy initiatives, focusing on “the military threat to national territoriality” (Daase 2010: 3). The term securitization itself initially describes the fact that a certain state of affairs is perceived as a security problem or is made into one. Thus, it is an attempt to place an issue on the security agenda, which, in case of success, has the potential effect of creating greater room for action in dealing with the issue or making more far-reaching measures politically enforceable. The concept was significantly influenced by the representatives of the so-called Copenhagen School, Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde, in Security. A New Framework for Analysis from 1998 (Buzan et. al 1998). The Copenhagen School offers a spectrum on which public issues can be arranged. At one end are non-politicized issues that states are not concerned with and that are not part of the public discourse. In the middle of the spectrum are politicized public policy issues that require government decision-making (e.g., executive orders). On the other end of the spectrum are securitized issues. These are presented as existential threats (e.g., to a nation), thus requiring immediate action. These issues also justify action outside of the normal policy framework, according to the theory. A securitization process is considered complete when an issue can be located at this end of the spectrum (Buzan et al. 1998: 23-24; Brito 2009: 3).
The authors of the Copenhagen School describe a successful securitization process as occurring in two stages. In the first stage, the so-called securitizing actor performs the so-called securitizing move by presenting a reference object as existentially threatened. In the second stage, the audience accepts the securitizing move. This approval legitimizes the taking of extraordinary measures in the next step (ibid.). In principle, the act of speaking, crucial to the process’s first stage, is performed by the elites in society (e.g., politicians), so-called functional actors, who have a say in the dynamics of a particular sector and are instrumental in significantly shaping decisions in the field of security (Buzan et al. 1998: 36; Brito 2009: 4). Reference objects are objects that are understood as existentially threatened and that need to be saved. In regard to climate change, reference objects of security can be the environment but also national security.
In this essay, only the first stage of the securitization process will be discussed. We will not analyze the reaction of the audience as this is too early to put into context. We analyze Biden as a securitizing actor when he was a presidential candidate and now as the 46th President of the United States. Due to this short format, we will not look at other members of his administration or campaign aides.
First of all, it should be noted that Biden clearly names climate change as a security threat, an ‘existential threat’, to various areas of society. Biden himself provides the following example: Climate change “damages our communities with storms that wreak havoc on our towns and cities and our homes and schools. It puts our national security at risk by leading to regional instability” (Joe Biden 2021). He further considers responding to these emerging instabilities by U.S. military-supported relief activities and wants climate change to be fully integrated into foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as approaches to trade. Biden positions climate change as a central organizing principle in his government, especially in the realm of foreign policy. Climate concerns are part of every single piece of Biden’s budget. In any case, the Biden government is planning on spending a vast amount of money to advance projects that are supposed to counteract the effects and support the adaptation to climate change, in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Moreover, the president is seeking to quantify the extent of the danger environmental changes pose to the U.S., ordering the first ever National Intelligence Estimate on the security implications of climate change. A National Intelligence Estimate is an intelligence dossier with analyses, forecasts, judgments, and background information on national security from the intelligence agencies and is presented to the executive branch upon request. The government’s 17 intelligence agencies have been directed to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the security threat posed by climate change. This is a significant step, as this action is usually reserved for terrorist threats to the U.S.
Since entering office, President Biden has taken steps to make climate change a priority of his administration. On January 27, 2021, shortly after his Inauguration, Joe Biden signed the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, in which he emphasizes that climate considerations will be “an essential element of the United States foreign policy and national security” (The White House 2021a).
The goal for the U.S. is to coordinate efforts bilaterally and multilaterally with other states in order to bring the world “on a sustainable climate pathway” (ibid.). In addition, resilience to the effects of climate change at home and abroad should be increased within a short period of time. As a starting point, Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement on the first day of his presidency. He wants the USA to become the world leader in overcoming the climate crisis. Therefore, he also initiated a world leaders’ summit on climate change this spring, where new promises of combating climate change were made by many countries but actionable plans were missing.
Another example of Biden’s determination to securitize the issue can be seen in Biden’s climate plan – a broad plan of Biden’s government on how to deal with climate change and boost infrastructure. Biden set a national goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the nation’s lands and oceans by 2030. Furthermore, he seeks to decarbonization of the U.S.-American power sector by 2035 through executive orders, the establishment of enforcement targets up to the year 2025, historic investments in climate research and investigation and clean energy as well as incentives for the timely deployment of clean energy innovations in all sectors of the economy, but especially in the communities that are impacted the hardest by the effects of climate change. Moreover, he is calling for an indefinite halt of new leasing on federal land and waters, as a precursor to ending the dependence on fossil fuels. While Biden’s climate plan also seeks to address social inequality, specific measures regarding climate change include: all U.S. electricity is to be sourced from renewable and zero-emissions power, the installation of smart power grids, an upgrade of the existing buildings to maximize energy efficiency, expansion of the infrastructure to set up more electric vehicles and public transport, the cooperation with farmers to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector, building up resilience against disasters caused by climate change and the restoration of forests. To implement all these measures, Biden declared to be willing to allocate $ 2 Trillion.
Biden also appointed John Kerry as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Kerry, former Secretary of State in President Obama’s cabinet (2013-2017), helped to negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement. During the Trump presidency, Kerry had still been engaged in working as a climate advocate. Kerry considers climate change a foreign policy challenge and an issue that is related to international security. Kerry as Special Envoy for Climate will be the first person at cabinet level to exclusively address climate change (Schoonover 2021: 31). In this position, he will be the Principal in the National Security Council. Furthermore, Gina McCarthy was installed by Biden as national climate advisor. She was instructed to create a task force which will include all major Cabinet Secretaries. The task force is supposed to develop actions to reduce pollution and foster resilience against climate change. The White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy will coordinate all policies across the different government branches concerning climate policy.
Overall, it seems that climate change as a policy issue has reached the status of a security issue. From our perspective, climate change as a phenomenon is assessed as an existential threat and special measures are applied. Biden’s measures and actions as well as his choice of words in his public speeches, that are mentioned in this text, can be rated as securitizing moves. This includes, for example, his personnel selections, his budget plans, the creation of new positions and institutions within the government apparatus and the pace of decision-making and implementation of measures, but also the initiation of the climate summit. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Biden’s actions so far are mainly plans and promises. Measures are still in the early stages so far and might not all be feasible. As of now, however, President Biden is much more active on the issue of climate change than many of his predecessors and immediately brought the U.S. back to the table with other heads of state in order to address climate change. He also seems to classify the issue more strongly as an overall security issue for the U.S. and the world.
It should be noted, however, that the sweeping Executive Orders signed by Biden will not, by themselves, stop or significantly slow down climate change. He will have to find consensus in a very divided Congress, sparring with both progressives and the fossil fuel industry to set the U.S. on course to net-zero carbon pollution by mid-century. But his initial decisions show that even as his administration grapples with the ongoing pandemic, Biden aims to follow through on his campaign pledge to integrate climate change considerations into decision-making across the federal government. Yet, Biden will not be able to fully address the national security threats from climate change, nor will he be able to take any action that involves spending money without action by Congress. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic will determine day-to-day political business for at least the coming months – even if Biden always emphasizes that the climate crisis is the greatest challenge we are currently facing.
In summary, the first phase of securitizing climate change has taken place under President Biden. We were able to detect several acts of securitization of the topic in different contexts such as political speeches, unprecedented measures like the National Intelligence Estimate, the establishment of a special department, and John Kerry’s prominent role. Biden has presented a large number of ambitious plans and initiated some preliminary measures. It is too early to judge whether his ambitions will be successful. Compared to his predecessor, Donald Trump, and to his counterparts in other (western) countries, his plans seem more promising to those determined to combat climate change. Now, Biden has to prove that he is serious about them and willing to defend them against obstacles. Whether the second phase of securitization will be reached, i.e., whether the audience anticipates securitization of the topic, cannot yet be assessed. One indicator could, for example, be the re-election of Biden. A successful securitization of climate change as a policy imperative might prove to be the decisive turn in American policymaking needed to regain ground lost after Trump’s four years of ignoring the scientific imperative to drastically cut carbon emissions.
 Biden’s climate plan includes even more measures, for example addressing social inequality, which are not the focus of this short article. ↩
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About the Authors
Hanna Thiele is about to graduate from Goethe University Frankfurt with an MA in International Relations. She received her BA in American Studies from Heidelberg University and is interested in sustainability, security and climate change. She has previously written on the role of U.S. city mayors in reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals and on organized climate change skepticism in the U.S.
Christine Hassemer just graduated from Goethe University Frankfurt with an MA in International Relations/Peace and Conflict studies. Topics of her interest are feminism, climate change and everything concerning equality matters.