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William S. Becker

William S. Becker

Posted: November 3, 2009 10:55 AM

Road to Copenhagen - Part 2: Risky Business

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The evidence is irrefutable: Climate change poses enormous risks to economic stability, public health, ecosystem services, and national security, as well as to the environment.

How should we manage those risks? The first step is to acknowledge them. The second is to start listening to the experts who manage risks for a living.

Over the past two months, I've attended several meetings of military and civilian experts in security, intelligence and risk assessment. They were unanimous in concluding that 1) the risks of climate change are growing rapidly; 2) those risks are routinely underestimated by policy makers; and 3) little is being done to plan for contingencies, even in those regions of the world likely to suffer the most and even though the suffering already has begun.

One meeting of security and risk experts was organized by Nick Mabey, a former advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair and now the leader of E3G, a nonprofit organization based in Europe to promote sustainable development. Our mission was to explore how the science of risk assessment and management should be applied to climate change. In a Whitehall Paper written last year, Mabey explained:

Climate change will be one of the critical forces shaping the coming century...it will fundamentally alter the way we live, the risks we face and how we interact in an increasingly interdependent world.

While scientists and environmentalists have been sounding warnings for years, an open discussion of the security risks of climate change started only a couple of years ago. In November 2007, the Center for Strategic and International Security and the Center for a New American Security issued "The Age of Consequences"; in June 2008, a blue-ribbon panel of high-level former military leaders, convened by the Center for Naval Analysis, concluded that global warming is a "threat multiplier" that will destabilize some of the world's most volatile regions.

That finding was confirmed a year later by the National Intelligence Council in its first-ever assessment of climate change. It was confirmed again recently by the CIA's creation of a new Center on Climate Change and National Security to centralize its expertise on "the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic, and social stability overseas."

On Oct. 28, retired U.S. military officers warned the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the risks that climate change and fossil energy pose to national security. "Our economic, energy and climate change challenges are all inextricably linked," retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn testified. "If we don't address these challenges in a bold way and timely way, fragile governments have great potential to become failed states ... a virile breathing ground for extremism."

A day later in Washington, D.C., the same message was delivered in a joint statement issued by active and retired military leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin American and the United States. In addition to calling on all governments to work for an "ambitious and equitable" international agreement at Copenhagen, the officers urged governments to make sure the security implications of climate change are integrated into their military strategies.

Mabey notes that climate risks - including drought and famine, loss of fisheries, coastal inundation, invasive migrations of climate refugees, natural disasters and water shortages - could go two ways. They could motivate nations to collaborate more on conflict prevention, contingency planning, economic development and disaster prevention and response; or, they could cause more tensions within and between countries, leading to conflict.

An example of collaboration are the Oslo Guidelines on the use of the military and civil defense agencies in disaster relief operations. An example of tension is the fence India has built along its 2,500 miles border with Bangladesh, in part to keep out illegal immigrants - a problem that may reach crisis proportions as residents of Bangladesh flee extreme weather, flooding and sea-level rise. As many as 30 million residents of Bangladesh could become "climate refugees" by mid-century, forced from their homes by sea-level rise, according to one government official there.

Public officials tend to be risk-averse in matters with potential political consequences. Now they must become risk-savvy. If some of them feel uncertain about the severity of climate change, that's not a reason to disregard risk; in fact, risk increases with uncertainty. They should not base policy on whether scientists' predictions of severe climate change are probable, but whether they are plausible. Because political leaders typically don't think like risk managers, "the risk of severe outcomes (from climate change) is greater than the public and policymakers generally perceive," according to Jay Gulledge, Senior Scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Here are 10 ideas on how tnational and international leaders can do a better job as risk managers:

1. Policy-makers must listen to risk professionals and acknowledge the rapidly increasing dangers of climate change. Nearly all of us practice some risk management in our lives. That's why we buy health insurance, liability insurance, homeowner's insurance, long-term care insurance and vehicle insurance. Risk management is no less important in regard to global warming.

2. Elected officials must listen to the climate science community. At the same time, scientists must clearly communicate the upper end of plausible climate risks rather than middle-ground risks. Politicians and policy makers tend to flock to the middle of the risk spectrum - a kind of Goldilocks and the Three Bears tendency where we want risks that are not too hot and not too cold. Good risk management requires that we anticipate and prepare for the worst.

3. Climate scientists should interact regularly with risk, security, public health, and disaster prevention and response agencies to help them anticipate and cope with emerging climate impacts.

4. To minimize climate risks, national leaders must find an effective balance between sovereignty and international collaboration. Existing international institutions probably will prove inadequate to deal with the unprecedented demands of climate change; new international institutions and mechanisms will be needed.

5. Public officials and citizens alike must invest in prevention - in other words, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the danger of climate change, and adaptation measures that reduce the intensity of climate crises. We should not wait for the crises to arrive, any more than we can wait to buy auto insurance until we're in the middle of a head-on collision.

6. Nations should begin serious contingency planning now, internally and with other countries in their regions. Some of the most severe climate change will involve nations where historic tensions already exist. India and Pakistan, or India and Bangladesh come to mind. The time to plan is now, in hopes the overriding threat of climate change will be the external enemy that draws old adversaries together.

7. Local officials should build risk assessment and management into infrastructure and climate adaptation projects. The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of development aid investment is at risk from climate change. To avoid carbon lock-in (i.e., actions that lock us in to greenhouse gas emissions for decades), we must stop building conventional coal plants and making other long-term carbon commitments. But we must also avoid "vulnerability lock-in". The critical infrastructure we build today - ranging from power and water treatment plants to hospitals and vital transportation systems - should be designed for resilience and located to avoid floods, sea level rise and other impacts of climate change.

8. The Executive Branch and Congress should regularly review climate risks to determine whether federal agencies have the authority and resources they need to respond rapidly to emerging worst-case scenarios. An even more interesting issue is whether the Executive Branch has sufficient power to prevent climate emergencies without Congressional interference - for example, by redefining 100-year floodplains based on anticipated future flooding rather than past flooding, and restricting development within predicted flood zones.

9. Governments must put adequate resources into research that improves our understanding of how climate change will affect us at the regional and local levels. Research should include "perfect storm" events where multiple impacts and stresses occur simultaneously.

10. Governments should classify climate change as a national security issue in budgeting as well as planning. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the Bush administration allocated $88 to military forces in 2008 for every dollar it earmarked for climate stabilization. President Obama's stimulus package and first budget narrowed the security-climate gap to 9:1 - a dramatic improvement, but still not an adequate reflection that low-carbon technologies and resources have become critical tools of conflict prevention, global stability and national defense.

We are rapidly approaching a time when the nations most threatened by climate change will regard coal-burning as an act of aggression and when nations will conflict over who gets dwindling supplies of finite resources. That makes solar collectors and wind turbines as important as conventional weapons in our national defense arsenal.

As I've written before, our biggest risk is that we'll fail to close the gap between what scientists tell us is necessary and what politicians believe is possible. We won't be able to narrow that gap until elected officials worldwide accept that the security risk of failing to act on climate change is far greater than the political risks of bold preventive action.