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National Security and Climate Change: What Do We Need to Know?

The effects of climate change “are here now” and pose a “serious challenge” for the United States, said Alice Hill, White House senior advisor for preparedness and resilience.

Date & Time

Jul. 29, 2014
2:00pm – 4:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The effects of climate change “are here now” and pose a “serious challenge” for the United States, said Alice Hill, White House senior advisor for preparedness and resilience, at the Wilson Center on July 29.

Warnings from the scientific community are sharpening and public awareness of the problem is deepening, yet the U.S. political debate remains stagnant. What can be done to advance the dialogue? According to a panel of government, military, and scientific leaders, linking climate change to national security may be the answer.

While not a direct cause of instability, climate change is a “threat multiplier” that can exacerbate poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation around the world, Hill said.

She and other panelists shared findings from a climate and security symposium in Seattle hosted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratoryand Henry M. Jackson Foundation, a philanthropic organization named after late Washington State senator and environmental advocate Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

National Security Redefined

Emphasizing national security concerns can appeal to climate skeptics and decision-makers otherwise reluctant to act, said Ian Kraucunas, deputy director of atmospheric sciences and global change at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Climate change is not some far-away thing that affects far-away people, but it affects things people here in the U.S. care about, and in fact that includes national security.”

“The definition of national security is expanding and changing as the impacts of climate change are becoming more profound,” said Larry Phillips, chairman of the King County Council in Washington State.

“National security is no longer about counting tanks, counting missiles, or counting terrorist cells,” said Craig Gannett, vice president of the Jackson Foundation. “It’s about coping with these unprecedented changes, some of which we can foresee, and some of which are simply unimaginable.”

“No science of climate change talk is complete without graphs of things going up and to the right,” said Kraucunas. Fortunately, “we still have an opportunity to make a difference in terms of what path we’re on,” he said. Climate models indicate that worst-case scenarios can be prevented if immediate action is taken to “manage the unavoidable” and “avoid the unmanageable.” The military and security communities can help, both by responding to climate impacts and reducing their own carbon footprints.

Beyond Borders

Climate-related national security risks have been identified by numerous federal agencies, including the White HouseDepartment of DefenseDepartment of Homeland SecurityDepartment of Energy, and Government Accountability Office, said Hill. These findings, along with last year’s President’s Climate Action Plan and the more recent White House report on the costs of delaying action, reflect the Obama administration’s escalating concern.

Local-level climate impacts can have national ramifications, said Hill. Floods and droughts along the Mississippi River could affect food prices by disrupting grain-carrying barge traffic, for example, and extreme heat and wildfires in the western U.S. could put critical power and water supplies at risk.

“The cumulative effects of these local events could have a significant implication for national security in the sense that they strain the capacity of local, state, and national governments to effectively respond,” said Phillips.

At the same time, international humanitarian crises can affect national security by stretching military resources, said Hill. The devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to call climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” is a case in point. The disaster last year prompted the Pentagon to send an aircraft carrier, five other Navy ships, marines, and relief teams to assist with humanitarian efforts.

“The Navy is going to be the vanguard of our national security policy,” said Commander John Marburger of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. “When you think about climate change not from a temperature standpoint but start thinking about it from a water standpoint, you’ll really start to get how this nexus of food and water and energy really come together – because that’s what’s going to drive the discussion on national security.”

Many regions vulnerable to climate change are already unstable, particularly in the northern Indian Ocean and western Pacific, said Marburger. The Navy is anticipating more humanitarian missions, sharing adaptation methods with partners overseas, and preparing for what he called “varsity-level events” – when humanitarian situations escalate into conflict.

In the Arctic, rapidly retreating sea ice is opening up new strategic opportunities, including shipping routes and the possibility of large-scale oil and gas extraction. Last year, 74 ships crossed the Arctic compared to only 4 in 2004, said Hill, and some believe competition over resources could cause tension between global powers like the United States, Russia, and China.

The newly passable region also presents an opportunity for the United States to showcase its ability to prepare for climate change in collaboration with partners, said Marburger. “This is a chance for us to get it right the first time,” he said. The recently released Artic Roadmap outlines the Navy’s plans to support the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which aims to protect U.S. interests while promoting responsible stewardship and international cooperation.

From Theory to Practice

The first step to adaptation is identifying vulnerabilities, said Marburger. The Navy is doing this through both macro- and micro-level assessments, and similar processes are underway across the Department of Defense, he said; “there is nothing special that the Navy is going to end up doing methodologically that will set it apart – and that’s a good thing.”

Effective adaptation requires understanding how climate change will impact a specific place at a specific time. Some impacts are relatively easy to model, like mean sea level rise, said Marburger. The trouble is, “nobody gets mean weather, and nobody gets mean sea level – you get the extremes.” Planning must therefore account for “episodic risks,” which can get complicated.

“There’s nothing harder in this business of adaptation than figuring out how to convey uncertainty and not let it lead to inaction,” said Marburger. For this reason the Navy is updating its policies to address climate change in the context of specific tasks rather than issuing broad mandates. Climate risks may be inconsequential for those performing routine maintenance, for example, but they are critical for those tasked with engineering bridges.

The Navy uses a range of methods to manage uncertainty, said Marburger. The “old way” is to “predict and then act,” which can be risky when information is limited. A safer way is to “predict, act in part, and then reassess,” which might entail procuring land for a levee today and then delaying construction for 5 to 10 years, for example. A third method involves assessing a range of future scenarios rather than relying on predictions based on past experiences that may no longer be relevant.

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

In Washington State’s King County, which includes Seattle, mounting climate pressures have prompted the local government to take matters into its own hands. The historically rain-soaked region is reeling from the largest wildfire in state history, which ravaged communities and left a flood- and mudslide-prone landscape in its wake. This year’s Oso landslide claimed 43 lives, making it the deadliest in U.S. history.

Wildfires in the surrounding region have increased four-fold since 1986, snowpack has decreased by more than 25 percent since 1950, the Puget Sound has risen by 8 inches since 1913, ocean acidity has increased by 25 percent since the industrial revolution, and four out of five streams have become too warm to safely support salmon, according to Councilmember Phillips.

As more and more people are displaced by natural disasters, “climate refugees are becoming a fact of life,” he said. “People moving because of climate change will also be moving because of jobs,” and the county’s relative prosperity may make it an attractive destination.

To address these trends, King County has developed a Strategic Climate Action Plan, which includes mitigation and adaptation measures targeting the most relevant local-level issues, such as roads and transportation.

But like most local governments, said Phillips, “we don’t have a viable source of funds to address this critical need.” Federal and state support for emergency management planning has been cut by 75 percent over the past five years, he said.

Climate Security: A Way Forward?

Given the threat climate change poses to U.S. strategic interests – through natural disasters, water and food shortages, damage to infrastructure, long-term energy needs, economic losses, migration, and the possibility of conflict – the national security angle is a promising means of jump-starting an otherwise intractable political situation.

“I think Henry Jackson and Woodrow Wilson are smiling down on us,” said ECSP Director Roger-Mark DeSouza, evoking the statesmen’s environmental and diplomatic legacies.

But merging the climate change and national security agendas requires caution. Overly simplistic interpretations of the climate-security connection can encourage adversarial policies that overlook the root causes of the problem, and some efforts to combat climate change may create more issues than they resolve. Moreover, there is no scientific consensus onwhether and how climate change causes conflict.

The need for a concerted response to global environmental threats is clear from any angle, however, and effective solutions will require collaboration between all levels of government and the private sector, said Gannett. “And all this, frighteningly enough, must happen as soon as possible, before the unavoidable becomes the overwhelming.”

Event Resources:

·         Ian Kraucunas’ Podcast

·         Photo Gallery

Drafted by Moses Jackson, edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker.


Hosted By

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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