President Obama’s trip to the Middle East last week served as a nagging reminder of the world’s most intractable problems: the Palestinian conflict, Iran, North Korea. These are geographically distant but historically persistent threats to the United States. With meteors landing unexpectedly from the sky, the entire earth suddenly feels like one big bulls-eye of doom.
Now, in this year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, issued last week by the office of the director of national intelligence, a new risk has been highlighted, marking a historic shift in how we think about our enemies: the weather — more specifically climate change. And the fact that America’s entire national security apparatus has embraced it as a threat is, in the end, good news for local communities.
The United States now concedes that the security of nations is “being affected by weather conditions outside of historical norms, including more frequent and extreme floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, coastal high water, and heat waves.” These have had an impact on food supplies and demographic trends. The global population is expected to hit 8.3 billion by 2030. About 60 percent (up from the current 50 percent) of people will live in cities, putting greater pressure on agriculture, energy, transportation, and water supplies.
We are not alone in our concerns. The American Security Project, a bipartisan think tank, analyzed military assessments worldwide. From China to Rwanda, Belarus to Brazil, over 70 percent of nations view climate change as a top threat to their national security.
Protecting against it isn’t just a matter of preserving natural resources; it is about adapting everyday activities to the threat. We are in competition with other nations in this regard: Global investments are linked to cities that can function in bad weather, airports that can lure commerce, ports that can deliver goods. When storms are powerful enough to wipe out electrical grids, our nation’s ability to project power is limited by our powerlessness.
Unlike responses to most other national security threats, those that guard against climate change are local in nature. We will inevitably have to abandon areas that are already doomed, such as the waterfront neighborhoods along the Eastern seaboard that can no longer hold back rising oceans. We are beginning to reconfigure our homes and offices, with zoning rules that prohibit first floor occupancy in certain locations and insurance policies that limit disaster compensation accordingly.
And we still must become a more resilient society, one whose basic building blocks cannot be knocked out by threats that are utterly predictable. This effort to construct a society with climate challenges in mind isn’t necessarily new, but it comes at a time when the limits of America’s infrastructure are abundantly clear and entirely visible: We all feel them as we drive to work, head to school, or use the subways.
Local governments are already invested in these national security efforts, whether they know it or not. Such efforts range from a mayor’s desire to fix potholes on residential streets to a governor’s promise to modernize public transportation. More than a lack of commitment or resources, it’s actually our hodge-podge of governance structures — New York City has control over its building codes, while Boston’s are often at the mercy of state approval — that too often become impediments to local ingenuity in preparing for oncoming storms.
At the same time as our intelligence agencies were reminding us that the climate poses as much of a threat as Iran or North Korea, the American Society of Civil Engineers last week gave American infrastructure a pathetic “D+” grade (up from a D!). Delayed maintenance investments and the failure to commit to modernization projects undermine economic progress, global competitiveness, and the sense that we live in a well-functioning society.
Our infrastructure investments — whether they come through taxes, loans, or a promising infrastructure bank proposal that would invest private funds into public works — utilize local ingenuity to reduce our vulnerabilities. The decline of American infrastructure is a fixable national security problem, much more so than the religious, political, and ethnic divisions that pit so much of the world against each other. Sadly, that is good news.
Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.