AMS Climate Briefing Series takes on national security implications of climate change


On June 4 CSW was on Capitol Hill attending an American Meteorological Society (AMS) briefing – part of the Climate Briefing Series – on Climate Change and National Security. The event featured Rear Admiral David Titley, Oceanographer and Navigator of the US Navy and Dr. Jeffrey Mazo, Managing Editor of the journal Survival and Research Fellow for Environmental Security and Science Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Rear Admiral Titley stressed that we simply cannot wait any longer to take serious action on climate change. A reasonable probability of risk is enough, he said – true to the proactive preparedness approach of those who think in terms of national security. It is not wise to wait for a “perfect knowledge” of how things will play out.

The presentations of both speakers are available here.

After an introduction by Paul Higgins, Associate Director of the American Meteorological Society Policy Program, Rear Admiral Titley took the floor and led us through the implications of climate change for the US Navy, beginning with an apt metaphor for the enormous heat storage capacity of the ocean and its effect on the climate system: the “oceanic dog wags the atmospheric tail,” he said.  He also put the specious argument that CO2 is a trace gas in the atmosphere and is therefore of little consequence in the context of the well-known effects of trace amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream: “Traces matter. A lot.”


Titley stressed that we simply cannot wait any longer to take serious action on climate change. A reasonable probability of risk is enough, he said. It is not wise to wait for a “perfect knowledge” of how things will play out, he said.

He discussed the main drivers for climate change action in the executive branch: on Executive Order 13514 and the Presidential Order on Arctic Security; the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review’s pledge that the Department of Defense will “foster efforts to assess, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change”; and the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, currently led by Titley.

The Task Force, established in 2009 by the Chief of Naval Operations, was created to better understand and evaluate the implications of climate change for maritime security, with a near-term focus on the Arctic. A combined effort of the Navy, NOAA, and the US Coast Guard, the Task Force worked with scientists to develop a “science-based timeline for future Navy actions regarding climate change,” Titley said.

“Because the Arctic is changing faster than any other place on the planet, our first deliverable was a strategic roadmap proposing actions for the Navy regarding the Arctic region,” Titley said. The Navy Arctic Roadmap was released in late 2009, and made recommendations geared towards risk assessment, readiness, and capability related to naval operations in harsh Arctic conditions.

The Task Force also developed a more general Climate Change Roadmap, released on May 21, 2010.  The Climate Change Roadmap is intended to be a companion document to the Arctic Roadmap that will “guide Navy policy, strategy, and investment plans related to a changing global climate.”

Near-term consideration addressed in the Arctic Roadmap include limited port access and infrastructure in Alaska, poorly charted and potentially hazardous navigation routes, the constellation of governance, environmental, and insurance logistics affected by an increase in Arctic maritime activity, and impacts on Native Alaskan peoples. Titley said that by the mid to late 2030s, the Arctic could see a period of four ice free weeks in the summer, with major implications for large container ship traffic.
In tackling near-term concerns, Titley sees potential for new partnerships, and an opportunity to remedy “six decades of bad behavior by federal agencies” acting individually with little coordination.  Titley said that agency partnerships could help lead the way towards the development of a 21st century air-ocean-ice-space observation and prediction system.

In the mid-term, the Climate Change Roadmap will focus on addressing sea level rise, water and resource challenges, and the potential for an increase on humanitarian relief and disaster response demands.

Titley referred to ocean acidification, abrupt climate change, and the possibility of geo-engineering as wild card factors: areas that are currently unpredictable or poorly understood and could pose significant risk to US national security if substantial investments are not made into understanding and predicting scenarios of how things may play out.  The best preparation for wild card threats, Titley said, is the development of a robust, resilient infrastructure capable of dealing with a range of outcomes.

Dr. Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies spoke about climate change as a major stability threat from the perspective of the developing world, especially among the least developed nations.  He said that concerns about the national security implications of climate change are relatively new, catalyzed by a 2007 UN Security Council debate on the impact of climate change on security that elevated the issue on the international agenda as a serious concern, a ‘gathering storm’ and a ‘threat-multiplier’ that exacerbates the conditions leading to failed and failing states.

Four key threats that may be exacerbated by global climate change are: general systemic weakening; boundary disputes spurred by changing coastlines and ice-melt; resource wars, as availabilities of critical resources continue to diminish increasingly into the second half of the 21st century; and instability as a threat multiplier in both the near and mid term as the number of failed/failing states – the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism – continues to increase, Dr. Mazo said.

Dr. Mazo emphasized that the regions most at risk to climate change impacts map fairly closely onto areas of current instability. Excluding Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the bulk of these countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa. These highly vulnerable nations are hit much harder than more stable states by extreme weather events, droughts, floods, and natural disasters.

Dr. Mazo pointed out that while extreme weather events that put strains on life and economy sustaining resources have always occurred at some intensity and frequency, the increased severity and recurrence of these events is the greatest threat, such that “state vulnerability to such events is the most salient variable,” and this is where preparedness efforts should be focused.

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