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Managing Risk in an Era of Irreversible Climate Change

Pakistan flood reliefThe latest synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) re-issued some dire warnings. These include significant risks to food security, and the increased probability of conflict that could occur as climate change amplifies other known drivers of conflict, such as “poverty” and “economic shocks.”

But the top takeaway from the climate-security point of view is the notion that we are very close to climate change inflicting “severe, widespread, and irreversible” damage, and that “many aspects of climate change and its impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped.” The bottom line is that no matter what we do or do not do today to slow the rate of climate change, we are going to have to prepare to live in a warmer and more insecure world.

And if this is the world we are stuck with for centuries to come, then we need a risk management strategy commensurate to the threats we face.

Constantine Samaras, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, recently had an exchange with the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, where he touched on the fact that responses to climate change have not matched the threat (as distinct from responses to other security challenges). It’s worth reading the entire discussion, but Samaras’ points below are especially pertinent:

Governments define their near-term and long-term priorities line item by line item on every fiscal year budget. In 2000, the U.S. Federal R&D budget for “activities to develop technologies to deter, prevent, or mitigate terrorist acts” was $511 million. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the R&D budget for counterterrorism grew to almost $2.7 billion in 2003.

This was a focused effort across several agencies to respond to new threats. Although this growth trend in counterterrorism R&D did not continue at the same pace over the past decade (e.g. DHS’s S&T budget:, the initial threats resulted in policymakers tasking the U.S. R&D infrastructure to find new ways to reduce risks to the country.

The impacts from climate change also pose risks to the United States, but policymakers are responding to these risks with much less seriousness than the response to terrorism.

We explored a similar analytical framework in 2011, comparing U.S. responses to WMD proliferation, international terrorism and economic shocks to responses to climate change. At the time, as now, the response was deemed lacking.

The silver-lining is that despite this generally inadequate response, those institutions that the public might least expect are taking the issue very seriously. In a recent Op-ed, General Zinni, General Keys and Admiral Bowman noted that we currently run the risk of being ‘too late’ on climate change, but that preparing for these anticipated risks has become an urgent matter for the U.S. military, which described climate change as posing “immediate risks to the nation” in its 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.

In short, a certain amount of climate change impacts are already locked-in for the next few centuries. And while we must slow the rate of that change, we must also prepare. The U.S. military, in concert with its civilian counterparts, is preparing for a range of likely climate futures. The broader policy-making community needs to follow that example.

1 Comment

  1. Vlad Fomin says:

    Indeed, recent work on reducing the risks of climate change does not correspond to the expected losses – in the very near future. Furthermore, there is the corresponding symptoms – even in the last two months in Europe – is very worrying. Thanks to the information received recently, work in Europe on this issue (from The Center For Climate & Security), we can conclude that there was insufficient work conducted both in their scope and in the famous research directions. The current situation – in research – always determines the onset of a catastrophic scenario in real life. Undoubtedly, you should take particular care to expound military proposals and points of view. Otherwise, enter into force on approval Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned that “The history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: Too late.

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