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NRC releases report on potential for climate change to pose or to alter security risks for the US over next decade
11 November 2012
The National Research Council of the US has released a report examining the potential for climate change to pose or to alter security risks for the United States over the next ten years. The report, the outcome of a study requested by the US intelligence community from the NRC in 2010, offers recommendations to improve understanding of the links between climate and security; monitoring and analysis of the factors linking climate change to security risks; and the ability to anticipate potential security risks arising from climate phenomena.
The report focuses on social and political stresses outside the United States, and on security risks that might arise from situations in which climate-related events have consequences that exceed the capacity of affected populations to cope and respond. It also emphasizes climate-driven security risks that call for action within the coming decade either to anticipate or to respond to security threats.
Core features of the climate change situation are known with confidence. The greenhouse effect associated with the carbon dioxide molecule has been measured, as has the dwell time of that molecule and its concentration in the atmosphere. We also know that the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently being added to the atmosphere substantially exceeds the natural rate that prevailed before the rise of human societies. That means that a large and unprecedentedly rapid thermal impulse is being imparted to the earth’s ecology that will have to be balanced in some fashion. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the consequences will be extensive. We do not, however, know the timing, magnitude, or character of those consequences with sufficient precision to make predictions that meet scientific standards of confidence.
In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means that significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.
This report has been prepared at the request of the US intelligence community with these circumstances in mind.—John D. Steinbruner, Chair Committee on Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change on Social and Political Stresses
Boundaries of the study. The study focused first on social and political stresses outside the United States because such stresses are the main focus of the intelligence community. Second, it concentrated on security risks that might arise from situations in which climate events—such as droughts, heat waves, or storms—have consequences that exceed the capacity of affected countries or populations to cope and respond.
This focus led to the exclusion of, for example, climate events that might directly affect the ability of the US military to conduct its missions or that might contribute directly to international competition or conflict.
The committee also excluded the security implications of policies that countries might undertake to protect themselves from perceived threats of climate change such as geoengineering to reduce global warming or buying foreign agricultural land to ensure domestic food supplies.
These kinds of climate–security connections could prove highly significant and deserve further study and analysis, the committee suggested.
Third, the study concentrated on the relatively near term by emphasizing climate-driven security risks that call for action by the intelligence community within the coming decade either to respond to security threats or to anticipate them.
Although these choices of focus helped bound our study, they left it with some notable limitations. Climate change is a global and a long-term phenomenon. Events within the United States and those outside the country affect each other, indirect links between climate and conflict can be related to direct ones, and the effects of climate change will not stop beyond a 10-year horizon and, in fact, can be expected to increase at an increasing rate. Thus a complete security analysis should project the risks of climate change beyond the next decade in order to inform US government security policy choices in the near term that will prepare the nation for events in later decades.
Our study includes the full range of potentially disruptive events that are becoming more likely because of climate change, whether or not a particular event can be unequivocally attributed to human-caused climate change rather than to natural variation. We made this choice because any such climate events can become disruptive and create a need for US government action regardless of whether they can at this time be uniquely attributed to anthropogenic climate change.—“Climate and Social Stress”
Climate-security connections. Although science is unlikely ever to be able to predict the timing, magnitude, and precise location of disruptive environmental events a decade in advance, much is already known that can inform security analysis, including details about the character of events that are becoming more likely and about the general trajectory of increasing risk, the committee found. Among their specific conclusions in this area are:
It is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events as well as conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate. The climate surprises may affect particular regions or globally integrated systems, such as grain markets, that provide for human well-being.
The overall risk of disruption to a society from a climate event is determined by the interplay among several factors: event severity, exposure of people or valued things, and the vulnerability of those people or things, including susceptibility to harm and the effectiveness of coping, response, and recovery. Exposure and vulnerability may pertain to the direct effects of a climate event or to effects mediated by globalized systems that support the well-being of the society.
To understand how climate change may create social and political stresses with implications for US national security, it is essential for the intelligence community to understand adaptation and changes in vulnerability to climate events and their consequences in places and systems of concern, including susceptibility to harm and the potential for effective coping, response, and recovery. This understanding must be integrated with understanding of changes in the likelihoods of occurrence of climate events.
It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events—including single events, conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being—will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response. It is also prudent to expect that such consequences will become more common further in the future.
The links between climate events and security outcomes are complex, contingent, and not understood nearly well enough to allow for prediction. However, the key linkages, as with societal disruptions, seem prominently to involve (a) exposures to potentially disruptive events directly or through globally integrated systems affecting human well-being and (b) vulnerabilities (i.e., susceptibility to harm and the effectiveness of coping, response, and recovery efforts). In addition, security outcomes depend on the reactions of social and political systems to actual or perceived inadequacies of response.
Improving fundamental understanding. The intelligence and national security communities are not the only elements of the US government that need improved understanding of vulnerabilities to climate change to achieve their goals, and the US government is not the only actor that has this need, the committee noted. The shared needs for knowledge suggest that knowledge development is best pursued as a cooperative activity involving many organizations.
A “whole-of-government” approach to understanding adaptation and vulnerability to climate change can advance the objectives of multiple agencies, avoid duplication of effort, and make better use of scarce resources, the report suggested. Such an interagency effort would help in anticipating the social and political consequences of climate events and in building the basis for a widely useful system for monitoring and analysis. This system would aid in anticipating security threats and could be employed by the US intelligence community and other domestic and international entities to inform choices about responses to climate change.
Recommendations in this area include:
The intelligence community should participate in a whole-of-government effort to inform choices about adapting to and reducing vulnerability to climate change.
The intelligence community should, along with appropriate federal science agencies, support research to improve the ability to quantify the likelihoods of potentially disruptive climate events, that is, single extreme climate events, event clusters, and event sequences. A special focus should be on quantifying risks of events and event clusters that could disrupt vital supply chains, such as for food grains or fuels, and thus contribute to global system shocks.
The intelligence community should, along with the USGCRP [US Global Change Research Program] and other relevant science and mission agencies, develop priorities for research on climate vulnerability and adaptation and consider strategies for providing appropriate research support. The interagency effort on vulnerability and adaptation should include agencies responsible for community resilience and disaster preparedness and response domestically and internationally.
The intelligence community should, along with other interested agencies, support research to improve understanding of the conditions under which climate-related natural disasters and disruptions of critical systems of life support do or do not lead to important security-relevant outcomes such as political instability, violent conflict, humanitarian disasters, and disruptive migration.
Improving monitoring and analysis. Monitoring to anticipate national security risks related to climate events should focus on five key types of phenomena, the report found:
Climate events and related biophysical environment phenomena;
The exposures of human populations and the systems that provide food, water, health, and other essentials to life and well-being;
The susceptibilities of people, assets, and resources to harm from climate events;
The ability to cope with, respond to, and recover from shocks; and
The potential for outcomes of inadequate coping, response, and recovery to rise to the level of concern for US national security.
Indicators and monitoring systems should be developed to follow these at various levels from local to national, the report said.
Developing a system for monitoring the conditions that can link climate events to national security concerns will require maintaining critical existing observational systems, programs, and databases; the collection of new data; the analysis of new and existing data; and the improvement of analytic systems, leading to better understanding of the linkages over time and to improved indicators of key variables where quantitative indicators are appropriate and feasible to produce. It will typically require finer-grained data than are currently available; it will also require improved techniques for integrating quantitative and qualitative information.
The committee made several recommendations in this area:
One of the objectives of the recommended whole-of-government effort to inform choices about adapting to and reducing vulnerability to climate change should be to build the scientific basis for indicators in this domain.
The US government should begin immediately to develop a systematic and enduring whole-of-government strategy for monitoring threats connected to climate change. This strategy should be developed along with the development of priorities and support for research.
Anticipating climate-related security threats. The committee recommended that the intelligence community establish a system of periodic “stress testing” for countries, regions, and critical global systems regarding their ability to manage potentially disruptive climate events of concern. Stress tests would focus on potentially disruptive conjunctions of climate events and socioeconomic and political conditions.
This recommendation calls on the intelligence community to incorporate climate risks and the associated exposures and vulnerabilities into what the committee presumes is an existing analogous process to consider the ability of foreign governments and societies to withstand various kinds of social and political stresses. The concept of a climate stress test provides a framework for integrating climate and social variables more systematically and consistently within national security analysis.
Stress tests should assess the potential consequences for security of climate events under either of two conditions: when climate scientists can say with some confidence that the events will be increasingly likely to occur or become more severe, or when the events seem increasingly likely to occur based on a fundamental understanding of climate dynamics but available evidence is not yet sufficient for climate scientists to attach confidence to such projections. Stress tests might also be triggered by assessments indicating that event likelihood, exposure, or susceptibility is increasing or that the capacity to respond adequately to certain kinds of climate events is declining in a region or country of concern.
...Countries, regions, and systems of particular security interest should be prime targets for periodic stress testing. Given the joint criteria of significant potential for climate change impacts and importance to US national security, it is likely that no more than 12 to 15 countries will need to be monitored and subjected to periodic stress tests over the next decade, many of which are likely to be in critical, and often shared, watershed areas in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. If the criteria for importance to the United States are expanded to include foreign policy and humanitarian concerns, the number of countries to be monitored and stress-tested regularly over the next decade may rise to between 50 and 60. Stress testing should also be applied periodically to global systems that meet critical needs, including food supply systems, global public health systems, supply chains for critical materials, and disaster relief systems.
Decision science techniques should be used and further developed to ensure that the stress tests make the best use of the available information. Stress testing might draw on various methods, including the qualitative interpretation of available knowledge, formal modeling, and interactive gaming approaches. Decision science techniques should be employed to design the processes and interpret the input from different kinds of expertise and modes of analysis in order to make the best possible use of information. The stress-testing exercises should themselves be monitored and critically evaluated so that stress-testing methods can be improved over time.—“Climate and Social Stress”
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.C.: The National Academies Press.
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