The US House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, held a hearing on July 8th to examine the Department of Homeland Security’s focus on climate change. While the hearing did include the usual political cleavages and posturing, it provided a useful opportunity to discuss the risk management approach of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including as it relates to climate change. Perhaps lost in the chatter was that the hearing marked an important step towards better assessing where we are both as a nation, and within various departments and agencies across the U.S. government. The hearing testimonies also touched on where the U.S. needs to be in order to avoid damage to critical infrastructure, loss of life, and stresses to national security. Indeed, there seemed to be broad agreement among all witnesses that climate change poses very real security risks to the U.S. homeland.
The first panel included three DHS representatives: Mr. Thomas Smith, Acting Assistant Secretary, Strategy, Planning, Analysis, and Risk, Office of Policy (testimony PDF); Mr. Roy Wright, Deputy Associate Administrator Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (testimony PDF); and Mr. Robert Kolasky, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Infrastructure Protection National Protection and Programs Directorate (testimony PDF). The second panel testimony was provided by Mr. Marc A. Levy, Deputy Director Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University (testimony PDF).
The hearing and the testimonies provide a wealth of information on the current risk management posture of DHS towards climate risks. Mr. Smith’s conclusion succinctly summarizes why DHS is concerned about these risks:
In conclusion, the best way to posture the Department to effectively address emerging threats and accomplish the Department’s five enduring missions is to ensure that tough policy, strategy, and resource decisions are informed by a consideration of the strategic environment, with a clear sense of the associated risk and resource implications. To disregard natural disasters, pandemics, and climate change would be ignoring how these factors may indirectly act as “threat multipliers”; and neglect our shared responsibility to strategically manage risk and build a more prepared, resilient Nation. It is through the thorough and candid assessment of these risks that that we will strengthen the security and resilience of the United States.
In the hearing, Rep. Scott Perry, Chairman of the Oversight Committee, notes that while the purpose of the hearing is to look at the portion of the DHS budget appropriated to climate change-related programs, “The question isn’t whether the Dept of homeland security should be prepared for the consequences of climate change, whatever causes it, or weather. We understand and recognize and acknowledge that, that the Department needs to be prepared to deal with that on behalf of the American people.”
Also worth watching is the exchange between Rep. Curt Clawson of southern Florida, and Roy Wright with FEMA (starting at 1:40:00). Wright goes into detail about the exercises FEMA conducts with communities to prepare for extreme weather events, and Rep Clawson states his strong support for that work (which will likely become more important as the climate changes). Rep. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi noted “We have to understand risk. We have to understand that we have to manage risk. Part of the management of risk is understanding what all of these vulnerabilities are out there and how we address it and if climate change is one of those risks we have to task the department with coming up with an approach to manage it.” Rep. Norma Torres alluded to the cascading disasters often associated with climate risks, and connected that to personal experience (she lost her home to a wildfire). She also noted that nearby ports are “expediting” the import of supplies to rebuild the community, with unknown consequences for port security.
What the hearing also made clear was that there is a lot of work left to do in more fully understanding the risks of climate to the homeland, and figuring out how best to manage the risks. These questions include how intelligence, data and responsibilities should be shared across government departments and agencies. Other critical questions include strategic threat assessments about how climate risks compare to other national security risks. Or the more common version of this question: How does climate rank compared to ISIS, Russia, Iran, China….? That’s actually an important question, and one that security analysts within the intelligence community and the military think about often (but to date, cannot adequately answer). A version of this question was posed by Rep. Perry to Marc Levy during the hearing (at 2:23:00). Levy’s response should be read in full as it is a clear-eyed look at a complex scenario.
That is an excellent question…answering that question is one of the recurring recommendations on a part of virtually every organized group to assess this risk for the US government. And it’s one of the things that requires more investment not less. So some of the other multipliers include the spread of radical ideology, the growth of income inequality, the uncertainty about the shift in the balance of power geopolitically, the rise of globalization which opens up access to markets and potentially creates grievances. There are a number of threats that we face. And they interact in complicated and potentially quite dangerous ways. The ability to understand how to rank order all of those threats is currently quite low and it’s a very challenging task because they interact. And so in any one case what you see is the result of all of them acting together.
What has been done over the past ten years is to isolate a small number of these threat multipliers and to ask the question: Can we rule out the possibility that this one threat is not making any difference? Because one possibility is that all of this dangerous activity we see around the world is a function of all of those other threat multipliers and climate stress is not relevant. But the statistical work that’s been done over several years has enabled us to say that climate stress is adding a significant additional set of stresses to that mix and if we were lucky enough to live in a world without that stress the world would currently be less dangerous. The bigger question you are asking has not been fully answered….
It is worth taking the time to watch the hearing. If one wades through the made-for-media talking points, what remains is a nuanced discussion on risk management, the role of government agencies in mitigating and preparing for those risks, and how a modern democracy grapples with adjusting to a new, more climate insecure landscape.