Aware of the Threat: Climate Change as a National Security Concern

The historic boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was destroyed by fierce winds that hit during Hurricane Sandy. Image Credit: Liz Roll/FEMA.

The historic boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was destroyed by fierce winds that hit during Hurricane Sandy. Image Credit: Liz Roll/FEMA.



What comes to mind when you hear the words “national security”? Cold war? Iraq? Nuclear armament? What about climate change? Direct military attacks are far from being the only concern on the minds of the U.S. intelligence community. Over the last decade, national security analysts have given (and continue to give) increasing attention to climate change and its potentially catastrophic affects. A recent report from the National Research Council (NRC) says that both scientists and intelligence analysts must adapt their approaches if we are to successfully face the changes our future climate may bring.

In 1916, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a private nonprofit, organized the NRC to advise the federal government on matters of science and technology. Nearly 100 years later, the partnership is still in effect, and in 2010 the intelligence community requested that the NAS/NRC arrange a study to “evaluate the evidence on possible connections between climate change and U.S. national security concerns and to identify ways to increase the ability of the intelligence community to [assess and address these concerns]” (NRC, S-1).

The result is the 280-page “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.” The report offers a strong reminder of how complicated and widespread the implications of climate change may be, and the need for a collaborative and multi-faceted approach.

The government’s concern about climate change-based risks is not new. Dr. Antonio Busalaccchi, chairman of the NAS/NRC Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, offered clarification about the report and the science/government partnership in a recent interview with Earthzine.

An audience listens at the 18th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-18) in Doha, Qatar, Image Credit: U.S. State Department.

An audience listens at the 18th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-18) in Doha, Qatar, Image Credit: U.S. State Department.



“Climate change, be it for military or intelligence, is an increasingly important agenda, [but] it’s an evolution vs. a shift,” Busalacchi said. Both the military and intelligence community have requested climate-related reports in the past, he said. The reports they request and receive now may be similar to past reports or differ based on newly available understandings of climate change. As more information about potential outcomes of climate change becomes available, the government adapts its strategy for addressing related potential risks.

Potential climate-related risks comprise a massive and many-armed category. The Climate and Social Stress report used several parameters: opting to discuss indirect risks from consequences of climate change, and focusing on external stressors. The study also primarily selected climate events likely to have consequences beyond the coping capacities of affected countries, and concentrated on risks that may require responses within the next decade. Admittedly, these parameters leave many climate-security issues unaddressed, and further studies are recommended to cover relevant and currently absent topics.

What makes climate change-based risks different from other forms of national security risks is that the underlying cause of the event will be based on information we do not yet have and factors whose impacts are, as of yet, only partially understood.

“Science is unlikely to ever be able to predict the timing, magnitude, and precise location of [potentially dangerous] events a decade in advance” (NRC, S-2). This does not mean that preparation is futile. In fact, in spite of limitations, Climate and Social Change offers a number of recommendations for ways in which the intelligence community can best prepare for climate-driven events.

“Hurricane Sandy showed the importance of analyzing our vulnerability,” Busalacchi said. Reports such as Climate and Social Stress could help provide that analysis.

As the study states, “National security decision makers do not like surprises…” (1-7), and the only way to diminish surprise in relation to climate events is for security analysts expect the unexpected.

For this to happen, scientists and their intelligence counterparts must take a “scenario approach” — unlikely events must be considered. In many traditional scientific studies, results are considered reliable only if they can be repeated with a certain degree of regularity and statistical significance. Yet, in the world of national security, even an extremely unlikely event can be of immense importance if it would have catastrophic aftermaths. For this reason, when risk analysts consider an event, they multiply the likelihood of an event’s occurrence by how serious that event’s outcomes would be. To prepare for fallout from climate change, scientists informing the intelligence community and the intelligence community itself may need to approach their research from a risk analyst’s perspective.

Another recommendation Climate and Social Stress offers is a strong emphasis on collaboration. Available data on potential outcomes of climate change is limited. Therefore, sharing international cooperation between researchers could greatly benefit the quantity and quality of knowledge available to decision-makers. The intelligence community is not generally associated with the idea of open books. But the partnership between scientific organizations and the intelligence community has already led to some disclosure of useful information, and the study itself is based only on information that would be available to the public.

[pullquote width=”440″]For a strategy preparing for climate change to be effective, the report recommends that across-the-board government organization take place, stating: “The intelligence community should participate in a whole-of-government effort to inform choices about adapting to and reducing vulnerability to climate change” (S-5). Federal, state, local, and private sector, as well as international organizations, will need to be involved in the planning process. [/pullquote]“Everything in this study is unclassified,” Busalacchi explained. He also provided a specific example of an area where the government released formerly classified observations of scientific value: submarine sonar profiles of polar sea ice. Through clear communication, a science/intelligence partnership can create a drive for improved predictions and better uncertainty characterization.

Climate and Social Stress also emphasizes cooperation and collaborative planning across all levels of internal agencies. For a strategy preparing for climate change to be effective, the report recommends that across-the-board government organization take place, stating: “The intelligence community should participate in a whole-of-government effort to inform choices about adapting to and reducing vulnerability to climate change” (S-5). Federal, state, local, and private sector, as well as international organizations, will need to be involved in the planning process.

A third type of collaboration the study promotes is cross-field discussion. Whether or not a climate-related event becomes a threat to national security depends upon variables beyond the geophysical ones. Politics, social structure, and economics of the impacted region all play a crucial role in ability to react to the event. As a result, the impacts of events can only be discussed adequately if Earth scientists also involve political, social, economic, and other experts in the discussion. Often these different fields remain isolated from one another, but to deal with climate change risks, they will need to acknowledge and embrace the overlaps in their areas of focus.

Climate and Social Stress sums up the future by saying that even collaboration and careful planning will not be enough to prepare national security for the climate events the next decades and century will bring. However, with careful planning, support of research, teamwork and flexibility, uncertainty will become a matter that the intelligence community is equipped to address.

For everyone, no matter what their role in national security or science, climate change’s status as a potential threat to national security is a reminder of how serious a role it will play in the future. The NRC’s recommendations for addressing these changes are worth considering. Work together, share knowledge often, talk to those outside your field, and create specific plans is strong advice for all intelligent communities.

For more information, see:
Full Pre-publication report

Report Summary

Report Brief.

Sources

Busalacchi, Antonio, Dr. Chairman of the Joint Scientific Committee for the World Climate Research Programme and Chairman of the NAS/NRC Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate. Telephone Interview. Nov. 30, 2012.

National Research Council. (2012). Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis. Committee on Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change on Social and Political Stresses, John D. Steinbruner, Paul C. Stern, and Jo L. Husbands, Editors. Board on Environmental Change and Society, Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington D.D.: The National Academies Press.


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