President Obama moved toward solidifying his climate change legacy this week by requiring federal defense and intelligence agencies to consider the effects of a warming planet on national security in the policies, plans and doctrines they develop.

The executive order, issued yesterday, comes in the form of a presidential memorandum requiring 20 federal agencies to collaborate to make sure decisionmakers have the best available information on climate change impacts and their potential threats to national security (E&ENews PM, Sept. 21). The agencies are as varied as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which gather scientific observations on climate, and the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense, which analyze intelligence and develop national security policy.

It’s no longer enough to work on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, said John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology as well as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The facts dictate it, Holdren said. The warmest year on Earth in the modern record, 2015, occurred during Obama’s presidency, and the past 10 years have been the warmest on record.

Those temperature changes aren’t just about readings on a thermometer, he said. There are national security threats in the increasing amount and intensity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, torrential downpours and floods. There are threats, as well, from the spread in geographic range of tropical pathogens, like the Zika virus, and the coastal erosion, flooding and saltwater intrusion brought about by sea-level rise. Even ocean acidification and warming have an effect on the food source, and therefore security, of billions of people worldwide.

“It’s gratifying to have the Paris agreements serving as the global policy framework for limiting climate change and its impacts,” Holdren said, “but it’s clear nonetheless that climate is going to continue to change for some time to come in ways that will negatively impact our security at home and abroad.”

Obama this week was on something of a climate victory lap in New York as he used his final address to the U.N. General Assembly to warn a global audience that climate change would worsen the sort of unrest and inequality that many experts say have spurred a refugee crisis worldwide.

The memo came the same day the National Intelligence Council released a report suggesting climate change and its resulting effects are “likely to pose wide-ranging national security challenges for the United States and other countries over the next 20 years.”

“We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and damaged infrastructure on communities around the world,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Add to that an increased risk of conflict over water and land, and the large-scale displacement due to rising sea levels, and it’s not hard to see why the Pentagon has deemed climate change a ’threat-multiplier,’ exacerbating the pressures and challenges far too many countries are already facing.”

The president and his top advisers have repeatedly described climate change as a threat multiplier that could foment conflict as desperate populations compete for scarce resources. But the administration has had mixed results at connecting climate change into a national security framework.

Kerry was ridiculed in 2014 after a speech in Indonesia in which he described climate change as the “world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Conservatives widely panned his speech, and Kerry was forced to defend his remarks to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A ‘step in the right direction’

The president’s memo requires a working group to develop in the next 90 days a Climate Change and National Security Action Plan. Among its tasks: identifying the areas worldwide most vulnerable to current and projected impacts of climate variability over the next 30 years. After that, individual federal agencies are expected to develop implementation plans that address climate-related hazards and threats to national security, that identify economic considerations and threats arising from climate change, and that identify risks to regional stability.

“Ninety days is very short if these agencies and departments were just starting, ... but in fact they are already focusing on it,” said Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Studies Program at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Some defense and intelligence experts have been clamoring for nearly a decade for climate change to be considered a national security threat.

Last week, a bipartisan group of defense experts and former military leaders released a consensus statement spearheaded by the Center for Climate and Security, warning that climate change presents a risk to national and international security and saying the United States should advance a comprehensive policy for addressing the risk.

The center also offered a briefing book that urges the next president to assign a Cabinet-level official to lead on domestic climate change and national security issues.

Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of Defense who signed the consensus statement, said it will require leadership by the next administration. Obama’s memo begins the work of institutionalizing climate change as a national security threat, said Goodman, who has long argued that climate change is a threat multiplier.

“What we’re talking about is making mainstream or more routine the integration of both the data that’s collected and the analysis of it,” she said, “and also giving it a higher priority. No longer should there be a major Middle East task force that doesn’t think about how climate is fueling conflict in that region.”

Retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University, called the president’s move a “step in the right direction” in how the security community analyzes and responds to the increasing risks of climate change.

“I look forward to seeing how the next administration will work with the Congress to move beyond administrative actions and enact laws and budgets to allow our defense and security forces to fully recognize and respond to the risk of climate change,” he said in an email.

Tying Trump’s hands?

Obama’s memo could be undone by the next administration, but national security and intelligence experts urged the next president to take seriously the threats of climate change.

The work over the next 90 days is based on an existing threat, said Alice Hill, senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council. Scientists and analysts and defense personnel at every federal agency want to protect against that threat and are likely to continue on that path, she said.

Holdren said the next president, whether he or she is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, will have no choice.

Climate change can affect, and already is affecting, the availability of food, water and energy, Holdren said. Such impacts can affect the economic, political and social stability of countries.

All of those could strain the U.S. military’s ability to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, he said.

“There’s every reason for the next administration to follow this blueprint,” Holdren said. “The facts on the ground and in the atmosphere and in the oceans are not going to change. In fact, the impacts of climate change on national security are only going to grow, and there will therefore will be every incentive for the next administration to deal with those challenges, utilizing the framework that has now been laid out.”

White House spokesman Brian Deese said the president directly and his national security team have been making a strong case for some time that climate change is having an immediate and growing impact on national security.

But this is the first time the intelligence community is institutionalizing how it assesses climate change and its impact on national security, whether it’s the effects that already are apparent, such as sea-level rise, or longer-term anticipated impacts. There’s now a comprehensive policy to ensure that future impacts are fully considered in the development of national-security-related doctrines, policy, assessments and plans, he said.

Dabelko said the scope of the memo normalizes the national security risks of climate change as something federal agencies must now not only understand but analyze.

“I think it’s a big step on top of an already active administration profile on these issues,” he said. “It’s not the first step, but this is a big one that goes wide and goes deep in terms of the topics it includes, activities it demands and ultimately the impact it is likely to have.”

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at Click here for the original story.