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Note from CCS and CSR Co-Founder on Ten Years of Combating the Greatest Systemic Threats of Our Time

By Caitlin E. Werrell

After ten years of work, first as Co-Founder and President of the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), then as Co-Founder and CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), I will be stepping back from day-to-day leadership to focus my time on continuing to foster a new generation of thinkers and leaders that are anticipating, analyzing and addressing some of the most systemic threats to security in the 21st Century.

When Francesco Femia and I founded CCS and CSR, we could not have imagined the extraordinarily talented team and advisors we would have in place just ten years later, and the colleagues and friends from around the world we have had the opportunity and honor to work with. 

We created these organizations because we wanted to elevate attention to those threats to global security that were under-appreciated, under-estimated and under-resourced. That began with the security implications of climate change, which we are thrilled to see has now become a top priority for the U.S. government, other governments around the world, and key international institutions. And later, with the founding of CSR, we expanded our scope to include nuclear threats (thanks to our late mentor and good friend, Janne Nolan), biological threats, broader ecological disruptions, threats from ethnonationalism, and the interconnections among all of these issues and more. 

After passing the baton of the organization in 2020 to a brilliant new CEO, Christine Parthemore, this broad range of systemic threats are not only being addressed by CSR, but they are being addressed by an incredibly impressive team of experts and advocates that both think and care deeply about them.

I will remain as a Senior Advisor to CSR, and will continue to do whatever I can to assist this great team in their noble work. However, I am stepping back to give space to other future leaders in these fields, and to focus on a passion that has always sustained me: art. 

But before I go, here are five points I’d like to leave you with on how to approach climate security, and the broader systemic risks our world is facing. 

  1. We’re living on a different planet and we have to act like it.  Acknowledging that we’re now living on a different planet than we’ve lived on for all of human history is how we have to approach climate change risks. Unprecedented climate change and unprecedented ecological disruption have altered the very foundations of the geopolitical landscape on which nations operate. It’s a new planet, with new risks and opportunities for our civilization, and it will continue to shift well into the future. We can look to history for lessons, but we can’t expect that history to repeat itself because we’ve never faced a change of this type and this magnitude before. The fundamental nature of the change should be factored into so many of the sub-themes of climate change. Reducing emissions is critical to preventing the worst, but adaptation is also essential because major changes and risks are already locked in. The relationship between climate change and conflict is a key issue, but it’s not the whole picture. The change is much broader and more systemic than we often treat it, and it’s necessary to expand the aperture of the discussion, and the actions that follow. In short, we must climate-proof our daily lives and institutions at every level of society if we’re to address this threat.
  2. The threats we face converge and cascade and we have to resist the urge to separate them. The threats we face today – whether from climate change and ecological disruption, nuclear and biological weapons, zoonotic diseases, or rising ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism – converge with each other, and cascade, contributing to some of the most complex and disruptive threats our society has ever faced. Climate change exacerbates threats to food and water security, which in turn contributes to the displacements of peoples and conflict, which in turn can fuel ethnonationalist political forces who threaten our security with hate-filled rhetoric and scorched earth policies. In the face of such often bewildering complexity, it is tempting to compartmentalize these issues and try to deal with them one at a time. We must resist that urge, or risk only half-dealing with these systemic problems, and potentially creating news ones we never intended.
  3. We are facing unprecedented threats, but we also have unprecedented foresight. Though many of the transnational threats we face are unprecedented in human history, the tools we possess today, from climate models to methods of predicting conflict and state failure, also give us unprecedented foresight. We may not be able to perfectly predict the future, but we can see its contours with a sharpness we never could before. That combination of unprecedented threats, and unprecedented foresight, underlines a Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent. It’s essentially the Good Samaritan principle. If you see an injustice happening (or about to happen), and you have the capacity to do something about it, you have the duty to actually do something about it. There are no more excuses. We can see many of these threats coming. And so we have to do all we can to prepare for those that are already baked in, and prevent those that are not.
  4. We need to accommodate surprises and be resilient to unforeseen shocks. Despite our unprecedented foresight, we still won’t always be able to anticipate everything. Nobody quite predicted, for example, that a rise in ethnonationalism in some of the most influential countries in the world could slow down our attempts to address a changing climate, and even threaten some of our most solid international alliances. And then there are events that we might anticipate, but assign a low probability to, and so ignore them. But as we’ve learned time and again, low probability events happen all the time. It’s not enough to hate surprises. We’ve got to be prepared for them. In this context, our systems need to be rebuilt to accommodate surprises, and be resilient to unforeseen shocks. If we can’t bend, we’ll break.
  5. Be nice. My late great uncle, mentor and best friend, David Grinnell, after half a century of living in Washington, DC and nearly a century of living on Earth, told me in his dying days that the most important thing in life is to be nice. So I’m passing that wisdom along in this note. It’s hard at times, but it really does matter. Be nice to others, and you’ll leave the world in a better place than you found it.

Finally, here is a sketch of Tropea onions I promised some of you. Some say it brings good luck. Or you can tie them to your belt (h/t Janne Nolan and the Simpsons).

Tropea Onions by Caitlin Werrell, January 2021


3 Comments

  1. Nancy Colleton says:

    Caitlin, such important messages and so beautifully written. Best wishes to you in pursuing your passion. Your significant contributions will continue I am sure.

  2. Marcus King says:

    Thank you Caitlin!

  3. Christopher Gaulin says:

    Thanks Caitlin! Proud to be one of the next generation of leaders in these pursuits that was supported by the Center and the amazing folks there. Best wishes!

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