National Security, Climate, and Startups

The Odd Intersection at the Heart of our Future

Mike Smith
April 19, 2023
A yellow arrow from the left, a green arrow from the bottom, a red arrow from the top, and a series of blue arrows from the right converge.

When I started at the US Naval Academy as a midshipman in 1998, there was a focus on state-on-state conflict within national security. The security establishment of the United States was still in the mental framework of the Cold War, preparing for potential conflict with a peer adversary that had disappeared. By the time I graduated in 2002, the focus had completely changed to the threat that the security establishment had long undervalued – the non-state actors like Al Qaeda that brought about the events of September 11th. The US government and its national security establishment became heavily, even myopically, focused on a “War on Terror”, leaving the focus of state actors behind.

Now in 2023, having recently retired from service, I watch as we return to prioritizing near-peer adversaries. It’s a move that makes much sense with belligerence and violence from those we should keep a wary eye upon. But we should learn from our earlier mistakes and remember that other concerns may actually cause greater harm.

There is an emerging school of thought about how the greatest threat isn’t from other nation-states, or even from non-state actors, but from things that aren’t even human. I’m speaking of non-traditional threats like pandemics and, of course, climate.

Two people, one in front of the other, both in full white suits with face masks to protect them from biological hazards.

I first wrote on the subject with a climate focus in 2019, but there are many others in the space, such as this podcast from Amy McGrath and Guy Snodgrass from 2020 or the Atlantic Council’s Veterans Advanced Energy Summit. But my favorite framing comes from Sean Hughes’s 2020 blog – that the global pandemic was the greatest infringement upon our collective liberty, it came about from a non-traditional threat (a virus), and was made far worse by our inability to respond due to insufficient infrastructure. Non-traditional threats – especially climate – are what national security is really about in the 21st century.

On climate, the threats to human civilization are numerous and well documented. Frequently lost in the discussion on climate around polar bears and forests – both important in their own right – is that climate change is a driver of mass human suffering. And that suffering causes security threats, to not add upon one another, but to multiply.

A young, thin child sits in a bed in a crowded room while an older girl pours a drink into his mouth while a woman in a white coat watches.

As one example, consider that huge areas of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all expected to see drastic increases in extreme heat and, in some cases, the introduction of lethal heat. This concept – where dewpoint rises to such a degree that no amount of perspiration is sufficient to cool a human body and one dies without air conditioning – would engulf areas currently home to 70 million people. Simultaneously, the Ganges-Brahmaputra River delta – home to the majority of the 169 million people of Bangladesh – is one of the areas under the greatest threat from sea level rise. So now you have three nations undergoing the simultaneous collapse of housing, agriculture, and industry, each with historic animus to one another, two with nuclear weapons, and with a border to a third nuclear state – China – also undergoing severe climate stress. It wouldn’t take much to watch the dominos fall. And if you think that this problem would be contained to just that region, think of how the American political system reacts to the relatively small number of migrants we receive from Central America. Now multiply it 1,000-fold as millions of desperate people do whatever they need to survive, and once unrooted, they’ll go where opportunity is greatest.

An orange sky with the sun in the upper left and three humans walking across a dark horizon.
Courtesy of Nomad Tales / Flickr.

In climate, the problem has two heads: adaptation to the emerging world we’re creating and mitigation to prevent the worst effects from coming to be. And because in more traditional security concerns there’s a need to take the action of the adversary into consideration, I think that the climate-oriented national security discussions currently concentrate too much on response-driven adaptation and not enough on proactive mitigation. And that is a mistake because the driver of climate change is not a dynamic enemy, but an unblinking question of physics and where the most dire scenarios will bring landscapes to which one cannot adapt. Mitigation of climate change must be the primary stratagem.

Mitigation is primarily a story of decarbonization – to eliminate as quickly as possible the human-caused emissions of greenhouse gasses on a planetary level. At that scale and scope, it moves beyond traditional security tools of hard military power and intelligence capacity. It becomes a story about creating financially attractive, low and no-carbon alternatives to current solutions. It is a story about using America’s soft powers like business and innovation.

As an example, one only needs to look at the rapidly growing and increasingly mature industry of renewable energy - an industry fostered in the United States and one that is rapidly expanding due to its improving and superior cost competitiveness. These tailwinds now drive rapid decarbonization of electricity across the globe and, in turn, enable other low-carbon technologies to come into being. This is why “electrify everything” is a convenient shorthand for transportation and industrial decarbonization. And it is the beginning of the argument for how climate-related industries that reach cost-attractive maturity and the startup ecosystem that foster them are essential infrastructure for national security.

Three wind turbines silhouetted against the sky and above the fog.

To “electrify everything” is to bring newer but existing technologies to market and to birth new businesses into existence. Similarly, efficiency upgrades, waste-to-energy, methane reduction, high-performance glass, grid flexibility, and the decision-making software that they all will integrate with (ahem) will all require new businesses to be created. The climate startup ecosystem, domestically and abroad, is an essential component of our climate future and our shared security.

The role of government is important and obvious. I’d encourage everyone to not only contact their representatives and to vote accordingly, but to do so urgently and enthusiastically. But it’s also a little too easy to just think this is a problem of governance. It’s more. There are things to do now and business must lead where it can.

Markets are undergoing massive change because it is one of the surest bets ever made available to those in business. The physical processes driving it are clear and there is an economic advantage to moving now. Nascent industries will quickly mature.

So, support those startups. Let them drive innovation in your organization. When available, invest in them. And do it not just because it’s an obvious business move, but because you’ll also be making the world a little safer.

A family of four silhouetted by sunset.
Mike Smith
April 19, 2023

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