The Climate Risk Spectrum

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 9, 2010 9:07 PM


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The Economist, in a rather one-sided article, is dubious about the increasingly touted link between climate change and human conflict. It's true that the "climate wars" narrative is starting to take on a life of its own. I've even used the term as a headline in a post. But it's also obvious (from the comment thread in that post) that environmental security experts are careful not to make direct links between climate change and war. Rather, what they often say is that climate change represents a "threat multiplier" in geopolitical hot spots, where a marginal environment, resource conflict and chronic state instability are already the norm. That said, there is this recent video montage of U.S. generals and admirals expressing their deep concerns about climate change. Additionally, there is a whole other set of geopolitical issues that are now being seen through the climate security lens. The Economist article signals that the broader assertions of climate-triggered conflict are about to be scrutinized more closely. In that sense, environmental security experts and military brass who warn about global warming ought to be prepared for the kinds of tough questions that climate scientists are routinely asked about their projections. That brings us back to the elephant in the room: Uncertainty. In a previous thread on this blog, one commenter who works in intelligence talked about how the issue of uncertainty figures into policy debates on various national security threats. He saw interesting parallels to the climate policy debate. In an email, I asked "Andy" to elaborate on these similarities and also to comment on the video of military professionals expressing their concerns about climate change. After providing some of his background, "Andy" offers a perspective that I hope triggers a productive discussion on the intersection between risk, policy, and cost/benefit considerations. ***** My experience is military intelligence "“ I've never worked for a civilian agency, though I've spent time working with people that do, obviously. My current job involves unmanned aerial vehicles (predator and reaper mainly) in Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been in the intelligence business for almost 20 years and my expertise is intelligence support to military forces, contingency planning and strategic warning. The video montage is interesting. They are doing what military and intelligence people do "“ they see a potential threat which stimulates their institutional desire to contingency plan for that threat. They see the scope of the threat and potential impacts are still uncertain but real enough to cause genuine concern. One shouldn't interpret this as a call-to-action for one's preferred ideological solution. It's actually a call for more analysis "“ not analysis of the science (which is outside their expertise) - but analysis of what can and should be done to address the problem. The process for this in national security is contingency planning and to me, that is the key concept that I take away from the video, even though it's not explicitly stated. Good contingency planning doesn't rely on fixed assumptions because plans made under today's assumptions are likely to fail when they meet tomorrow's reality. Rarely do our assumptions hold true over time. Therefore we need a holistic and flexible approach which considers a variety of assumptions. We need to consider resource allocation on a continuum and prioritize the potential threat of climate change under a variety of assumptions vs other potential and not-so-potential threats, interests and values. We can't afford to put all our eggs in one basket. The military, for example, aspires to have a "full spectrum" force that can deal with humanitarian crises, high-intensity conventional warfare and everything in between. Part of that includes planning for both likely and unlikely scenarios. As a result the military is rarely fully-prepared for any one contingency, but is usually "prepared enough" for a wide range of contingencies. That method of dealing with uncertainty has proven itself over time. I personally believe (and this is probably the result of my own professional bias) that we need to prepare for climate change in a similar "full spectrum" manner, at least until there is sufficient political consensus to focus efforts in one area. What is politically possible also needs to be considered simply because political structures (governments in this case) usually aren't willing to suffer high opportunity costs unless the solution is a sure thing. I think those who are predisposed to certain policy solutions need to keep that in mind "“ particularly those at the CAGW end of the spectrum. From my armchair I think a lot of those advocates are shooting themselves in the foot. Litmus tests regarding what is appropriate skepticism, for example, are not likely to generate the political support necessary to enable the policy you want "“ quite the opposite actually. You'll get high-fives from supporters and alienation from everyone else. In order to achieve policy action on the scale you believe is required, you need to make the tent bigger, not smaller. So it seems to me you are thinking tactically and not strategically "“ maybe you win some battles, but you risk losing the war. Just something to think about. One thing to keep in mind about senior military officers and national security people is that they are a parochial bunch who usually have bureaucratic interest in mind. Despite all the intelligence reforms after 9/11, parochial interest still reigns and all the various agencies both cooperate and compete. As our federal budget increasingly comes under intense pressure, you're going to see a lot of people try to keep their organizations away from the budget ax by taking on new "threats." Climate change therefore represents an opportunity for parochialism that can't be completely ignored when assessing the views of senior officials with budgetary skin in the game. That's a sad indictment of my own organization and profession, but I've seen it all too often to believe it will be any different regarding climate change. Returning to the national security aspect of climate change for a minute, I think the focus will primarily be on consequence management because of the policy tools we have in the greater policy toolbox. We are not equipped to deal with, for example, a carbon-reduction strategy. The US military, in particular, has unique capabilities to quickly react to problems overseas "“ see the recent disaster in Haiti, for example. Since our toolbox is limited and since we inevitably have our institutional parochialism, I doubt you will see many national security folks argue for a carbon reduction strategy if that will negatively impact their parochial interests (ie. budgets) "“ in other words, the military and national security bureaucracy will, in my judgment, tend to favor consequence management policies over carbon reduction. Finally, one reason that I've become so interested in climate change is because it is very similar in character (but not content) to traditional national security problems. I mentioned a few such problems in my earlier comment and I'll focus on one here "“ nuclear terrorism. Currently, this is deemed the preeminent threat to US national security (see here for a summary). This is a threat that's difficult to quantify in terms of probabilities and there is a wide range of opinion on how to deal with it. There are "denialists" who think it's not much of a problem at all "“so unlikely as to be irrelevant and thus requiring no policy change. At the other end of the spectrum are those who think it's only a matter of time before a US city gets nuked unless we take bold and decisive action now. Does that dichotomy sound familiar? Of course there is a middle-ground where we take reasonable, cost-effective measures to reduce the threat (increased security, better controls of nuclear material, better intelligence and detection), create and maintain capabilities to deal with the consequences should the threat materialize (response teams, medical and decontamination capabilities, etc.) and work on a long-term solution to the problem (reduction/elimination of nuclear weapons, more limits and oversight of nuclear activities internationally, etc.). Not coincidentally, those cost-effective measures have positive secondary effects in other areas. Iran's nuclear program is another example. There are many uncertainties regarding Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities. Even if we assume the worst, it doesn't necessarily follow that the sure-fire remedy "“ toppling the government through military force "“ would be the wisest option. Actions have consequences and before formulating policy we need to be reasonably sure the cure won't be worse than the disease. In short, I see a lot of wishful thinking on both sides of the climate change debate rooted in unrealistic and unachievable policy preferences. I can't definitively speak to intentions, but my sense is that many people begin with a policy preference borne out of tribal ideology instead of thoroughly examining the problem in all its complexity. In my opinion, what we need is serious policy analysis that examine costs, benefits and risks and we need to create plans that include a variety of actions flowing from a variety of assumptions instead of considering only the policy we are predisposed to. ***** What do you think of the framework Andy proposes for addressing the vexing issues of uncertainty, security threats and cost-benefit considerations?

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