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NRC: Implications of Abrupt Climate Change for National Security and the U.S. Military

800px-Hurricane_Sandy_NYPD_FDR_Flood_2012_2The National Research Council just released an updated report, Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises, on the issue of abrupt climatic change, potential impacts of these changes and tipping points that can be triggered by gradual changes in the climate.  The report’s introduction states, “The fundamental concerns with abrupt change include those of speed — faster changes leave less time for adaptation, either economically or ecologically — and of magnitude — larger changes require more adaptation and generally have greater impact.” These are also the concerns that keep security practitioners up at night.

For example, Sandra Erwin in National Defense Magazine wrote a great summary of what the conclusions of this report mean for the U.S. military.  Erwin suggests that the report’s findings should be a call for action by the military, which is especially timely in light of the forthcoming 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review:

The U.S. military has contingency plans to cope with just about any threat to national security, including climate-related disasters and humanitarian crises. But even the Pentagon is likely to be caught flat-footed when the next wave of climate upheaval is unleashed on the planet, a new study suggests.

Erwin found that though the study included just one page on national security, these findings sit within the context of a host of other reports detailing the complex linkages between climatic shifts and national security:

Of the 202-page NRC report, titled “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprise,” only one page is dedicated to national security. But brevity, in this case, “should not be interpreted as an indication of importance,” the study says, citing other reports that have delved into climate-related security issues in greater depth.

“Overall, the links between climate and national security are indirect, involving a complicated web of social and political factors,” the NRC notes. Climate effects such as food and water security have the potential to fuel conflicts. Water and food scarcity could cause international humanitarian crises as do epidemics and pandemics. The Pentagon also anticipates future geopolitical tensions resulting from the melting of the polar ice caps.

There is certainly more information in the report that will need to be integrated into future security assessments, but Erwin’s review is an important first pass. Her full assessment is here: New Study on Climate Change Raises Stakes for U.S. Military.

Of course, the implications of these findings go well beyond the U.S. military, and raise questions about the capacity of governments and societies as a whole to cope with abrupt changes. As Anthony Barnosky, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, stated at the report’s release. “When you think about gradual changes you can kind of see where the road is and know where you’re going. When you think about abrupt changes and threshold effects, the road suddenly drops out from under you. And it’s those kinds of things we’re suggesting we need to anticipate in a much more comprehensive way.”

Here is the NRC’s full report, and below are a number of articles summarizing the report.

-National Journal, Scientists: Nation Unprepared for ‘Abrupt’ Climate Changes

-National Geographic, Abrupt Climate Disaster Threat Raises Call for Early Warning System

-The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, Some Good News (and Plenty of Bad) in NRC Abrupt Climate Change Report.

-NPR, Ready – Or Not, Abrupt Climate Changes Worry Scientists Most


1 Comment

  1. “If society hopes to anticipate tipping points in natural and human systems, an early warning system for abrupt changes needs to be developed, the report says.”

    How much more of an early warning system do we need besides the disappearing ice cap? Is that not the idiot light at the top of the world? http://achangeintheweather.com/2012/12/10/the-idiot-light-at-the-top-of-the-world/

    I continue to be amazed that the security focus in the Arctic continues to be the resource grab, when it is clearly the disequilibrium that the ice cap’s disappearance will induce in the jet stream and seasonal weather patterns–which, for all human purposes, will be permanent.

    The focus should be simple, preventing the disappearance, not exponentially complex, trying to anticipate and create infrastructure for every contingency after it goes.

    Implicit in the lack of preventative effort: it is too late. But preparing for the ice cap’s disappearance is like preparing to have a vital organ removed. Post-removal life won’t be a linear extension of current trends. It will be a profound dislocation from them. A phase change. A completely different life requiring an arduous and, I fear, violent transformation. It’s like trying to prepare for the Chixulub asteroid.

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