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What We Know: Climate Change and National Security

CanberraBushfiresThe American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest non-government general science membership organization, just launched its latest climate change communications initiative: “What We Know,” focused on highlighting “the reality, the risks and response to climate change.” The plainspoken, risk management approach to climate change is refreshing. The initiative provides a clear but thorough backgrounder on what we know about climate change, including the national security implications, as well as how to respond to these risks in the face of outstanding uncertainties. The backgrounder states:

We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. Earth’s climate is on a path to warm beyond the range of what has been experienced over the past millions of years.[ii] The range of uncertainty for the warming along the current emissions path is wide enough to encompass massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems: as global temperatures rise, there is a real risk, however small, that one or more critical parts of the Earth’s climate system will experience abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes. Disturbingly, scientists do not know how much warming is required to trigger such changes to the climate system.

In addition to this broad overview, the backgrounder includes a portion dedicated to what we know of climate change and national security (Page 11-12). This section highlights the Department of Defense’s recently-released 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Research Council’s 2011 report “National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces,” CNA’s Military Advisory Board  report noting that climate change is a “threat multipler,” and a citation from an op-ed by Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board members Lt. Gen John Castellaw, USMC (Ret) and Rear Adm. David Titley, USN (Ret), “The U.S. Military Leads on Climate Change.” It also mentions the link between drought, climate change and unrest in Syria, which we highlighted in our “Arab Spring and Climate Change” report.

The backgrounder goes on to note that: “The risk of abrupt climate change is particularly challenging because, while plausible, we have few historical measurements to guide our judgment of likelihood (pg 16).” Instead of letting this lack of historical precedent prevent action, AAAS scientists hope that by better understanding the risks we face, including outstanding uncertainties, appropriate action will be more likely.

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