Opinion

Climate Change and Nuclear Policy Are Dangerously Disconnected: Biden Can Fix That

There are few threats facing the world today as potentially catastrophic as the risk of nuclear war and the potential for widespread, runaway climate change. But imagine the destructive potential of these two risks converging — a trend that is already underway.

Yet America’s climate and nuclear policies are too often disconnected, despite increasingly interconnected risks across these two fields. The Biden administration has an opportunity to fix this, with significant potential for bolstering U.S. national security.  

Perhaps the most basic way in which climate and nuclear trends come together is in the use of nuclear energy to reduce climate change-amplifying greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the connections between climate and nuclear go much further than energy production. Through worse and more frequent natural disasters, climate change is driving a need to heighten resilience of nuclear infrastructure. This includes coastal facilities being affected by sea level rise, nuclear sites vulnerable to extreme storms and the effects of intensifying extreme heat records affecting nuclear facilities and their workers. 

Globally, the impacts of climate change are combining with political, economic and social trends to drive significant concerns regarding the future stability of nuclear weapons-possessing countries. Just look to the tense nuclear neighbors of China, India and Pakistan. These countries are navigating increased pressures and disputes along their borders, while each country experiences increasingly dramatic heat waves, floods, changes in water availability and other harbingers of a warming planet. 

Several countries are also pushing ahead with their first nuclear energy programs. Some of these nuclear newcomer countries — Egypt, Turkey and Nigeria, for example — are already being hit by climate change effects that are exacerbating internal conflicts, precipitating regional instabilities, displacing populations and raising sea levels around planned nuclear energy sites. So far, Russia and China are poised to serve as the primary nuclear suppliers to these nations.  

When viewed together, it’s clear that climate and nuclear trends are converging to reshape the world order. During the Trump administration, the United States’ exit from bedrock nuclear nonproliferation pacts, the elevation of nuclear weapons and the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement formed a dangerous trend away from multilateralism on these existential threats. This must be reversed.  

Despite these growing global challenges at the nexus of climate and nuclear trends, there are clear, achievable steps for President-elect Joe Biden to address them.  

First, Biden should recommit the federal government to investing in nuclear safety, the security of nuclear materials globally and nonproliferation. These commitments are critical, no matter what future role nuclear energy will play in addressing the climate crisis. 

Second, the Biden administration should take deliberate steps to unify climate and nuclear decision-making. The next National Security Council leaders should task a senior director with ensuring policy and programmatic coherence for such converging risks. The NSC is ideally positioned to bring together the right interagency experts to create coherent plans across climate, nuclear and other directly related issues. It can also help ensure that the intertwined nature of many systemic risks, including climate and nuclear threats, are recognized in the next iterations of U.S. national security and defense strategies. 

This strategic planning can be augmented by new technologies. Though the risks we’re facing are unprecedented, so is our foresight. Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence can provide new insights and early warning regarding climate, nuclear, biological and other threats in a more comprehensive way than ever before. Moreover, the United States can lead in developing and exporting these capabilities, for example, by sharing them with nuclear newcomer states and those facing extreme climate risks.   

Third, a suite of actions to address the climate-nuclear nexus can stem from Biden’s goal of rebuilding trust in science. Investing in improving science communications regarding existential threats and their solutions will be critical, as will strong support for the U.S. national laboratories that work on nuclear and climate threats. An updated visa regime to keep a well-trained science and technology workforce in the United States will further enable such progress.

Finally, U.S. policy must recognize that setbacks in curtailing nuclear weapons threats negatively affect public trust in nuclear energy’s role in addressing the climate crisis. The United States should lead the way in a recommitment to smart nuclear policies by curbing the currently expanding menu of nuclear weapons capabilities being developed by this country and Russia, and to a lesser extent China, India and Pakistan. The United States can adjust its own nuclear modernization plans, halt expansion into new capabilities that could harm strategic stability and pursue creative new arms-control arrangements. One such option would be to create a new, nuclear-only successor to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that the Trump administration recently exited. 

Any such progress on future arms control arrangements will strengthen the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons (NPT), in which nuclear weapons states like the United States pledged to work toward eliminating these weapons. The NPT is the foundation for spreading peaceful nuclear energy programs without intolerably raising nuclear weapons proliferation risks. However, at 50 years old, the treaty is strained by lack of progress toward disarmament and other setbacks. In addition to the nuclear risks this creates, there is no sound path to nuclear energy playing a larger role as a solution to climate change without a strong NPT. 

At minimum, the United States must increase its understanding of how systemic risks converge and prevent policies in one area from undermining progress in another is achievable. With the steps outlined above, the Biden administration can extend beyond this to create efficient and effective plans for addressing both climate and nuclear threats in tandem, putting the nation on a faster path to restoring global leadership and countering two of the greatest threats to America’s security. 

Sherri Goodman is former deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security), chair of the Council on Strategic Risks and board director, Atlantic Council.

Christine Parthemore is the CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks.

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