EVENT RECAP: “The Heat Is On: Climate Change, The Arctic, & National Security.”


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Madeline Puppos

On May 10, 2023, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security hosted an event titled: “Climate Change, the Arctic, and National Security.” The event panel comprised David Priess, Erin Sikorsky, and Marisol Maddox. Sikorsky is the Director of the Center for Climate and Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security and an adjunct professor with the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Maddox is the Senior Arctic Analyst at the Polar Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a non-resident research fellow at the Center of Climate and Security, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations as well as an alumna of the Schar School’s International Security program. The panel was moderated by David Priess, a senior fellow of the Hayden Center and the Director of Intelligence for Bedrock Learning, a recent publisher of “Lawfare,” chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute, and former CIA analyst and briefer. The panel’s discussion centered around the central question: given the renewed emphasis on climate change in the intelligence community (IC), as shown by the recently released threat assessment for U.S. national security, how is climate change going to play a role in national security in the future, and how can we prepare?

The discussion first examined how to view the intersection of climate change and national security and, more specifically, how that applies to the Arctic, an increasingly important area in international affairs. Overall, the panelists said that the world’s baseline for normal, day-to-day operations is shifting and shifting quickly, which challenges many key assumptions the IC considers to be true today and could negatively impact future analysis. In addition, the panelists explained that climate change is not another threat that exists in tandem with other national security issues but rather is a new dimension through which to view these issues. For example, how will faraway events precipitated by climate change, such as the melting Greenland ice sheet, impact the U.S.’s domestic infrastructure and economy?

The discussion then turned to more specific issues regarding climate change, including its geopolitical ramifications. Sikorsky stated that in some ways, the impacts of climate change provide leverage for the U.S.; for instance, President Biden was able to use Russia’s burning tundra as a pressure point against President Putin in the invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, however, many countries lack the time or resources to focus on climate change because they are distracted by more immediate issues. In addition, geopolitical issues can halt or stifle progress in climate change – the Arctic Council, for example, was placed on hiatus temporarily in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in order to prevent Russia, the chair at the time, from having a political platform from which to share its war propaganda. Though the council has since reopened, progress remains stifled, according to Maddox.

Finally, the discussion turned to the panelists’ recommendations and possible solutions. Overall, both panelists agreed that climate change should not be viewed as a standalone threat but should be integrated into our understanding of the U.S.’s current threats. Furthermore, the IC needs people who are educated on climate change and its impact on national security as well as people who are willing to check their politics at the door. In addition, both panelists cautioned against fear; Sikorsky specifically mentioned that though the discussion had been rather pessimistic, she remained optimistic about the future. Between her students and the military logisticians with whom she works, she feels confident that people are aware of and thinking deeply about the issue.

The event then concluded with some questions from the audience and later a reception for the in-person attendees.

A video of the event is available at the Hayden Center YouTube channel: