Climate Change as a Security Threat

It was the end of yet another trip to Washington, D.C. I generally find myself in the nation’s capital between three to five times per year, all depending on project needs, meeting invitations, and other factors mostly relevant to my work for the American Planning Association. I don’t even remember now which trip it was or what I was doing, just that when it was all over, I found my way as usual to Reagan National Airport to fly home. It was early evening, and I had left enough time for dinner at Legal Sea Foods, one of my favorite restaurants. They just happen to have an outlet in the main hall before you go through security into one of the concourses.

I was sitting at the bar, an easy place to have a good seafood dinner alone with a beer, but soon found myself next to another gentleman. Being a compulsive extrovert at heart, I introduced myself, and we were soon engaged in a conversation about what we both did. I explained my work on planning for natural hazards and learned that he was a career Navy officer. Relating to my obvious interest in coastal hazards, he informed me that he had worked on some Pacific island bases and had taken note over time of the rise in sea level that posed long-term problems for those naval facilities. I was already well aware the Department of Defense has been paying close attention to climate change as a possible source of concern for national security, in part but not solely because of its impact on military facilities and capabilities.

The conversation eventually drifted to the politics of climate change and the disconnect between many Republican conservatives’ skepticism about climate science and the more objective and cautious position of the Defense Department. He observed, as I recall, that he preferred science to ideology and then delivered his unintended punch line: “I used to be a Republican, but they’re making a Democrat out of me.” I chuckled with him, and the conversation continued.

As I thought about it later, however, I considered it sad if he felt forced to abandon his Republican roots. It may sound attractive to most Democrats to attract such a man to their ranks, but I also think it is important that some voice for climate sanity and allegiance to scientific evidence retain its voice in the Republican party. It will be a bad day for this nation when such people feel there is no room for their voice in Republican circles because it is already sad enough that climate change is viewed by many as a matter of ideology instead of scientific inquiry. There is also no question, skeptics aside, that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates human influences on a changing climate and a need to prepare for effective adaptation to changes already underway and largely inevitable.

I mention all this as a way of introducing readers to a briefing book for the change in administrations, prepared before it was clear who would become the next president. The Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), chaired by the Center for Climate and Security in partnership with George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, produced the briefing book and released it in September. CSAG consists of a number of energy and climate experts in addition to numerous prominent retired military officers and officials.

Numerous such briefing books will find their way to the transition team for incoming President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Exactly which get read and when, and how many cabinet choices may be made before that happens, is anyone’s guess. A cynical or doubtful view can be had by considering both Trump’s past comments to the effect that climate change is a hoax and the views of some of the people surrounding him. A more positive view may be gleaned from the fact that his views on many such topics seem less than solid. It also remains to be seen how serious he may be about reading briefing books, given a reputed lack of interest in reading, but it is hard to imagine how long any president can avoid confronting the briefing materials that will come his way. The fact that the advice is coming from military experts may weigh more heavily than warnings from environmentalists or even scientists. Right now, it is just hard to know. Trump is almost surely one of the least predictable incoming presidents of modern times. But if he were ultimately to take climate science seriously—admittedly a big if—his administration could almost become transformative on the issue by bringing many of his supporters with him.

As for the briefing book, “Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate,” it is worth understanding its purposes, and what it does and does not do. It is not itself a scientific document. Instead, it is a consensus-based set of recommendations from the many people listed as advisors. It details specific actions the incoming administration is advised to take in areas of defense, foreign policy, homeland security, intelligence, and energy, often urging that positions responsible for monitoring and counseling on actions to address climate change be elevated to a higher status in their respective agencies and in the White House.

For example, one area that receives repeated attention throughout the document is a melting Arctic Ocean, which introduces a number of national security questions ranging from the opening of a previously frozen seaway to oceangoing traffic to issues related to the extraction of natural resources from its fragile environment. These are no small issues and demand urgent attention. A sobering but fascinating view of those changes was offered five years ago by geographer Laurence C. Smith of the University of California-Los Angeles, in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future.

The briefing book also takes the approach, already widely under consideration in the Pentagon, that climate change can potentially spawn serious international conflicts over scarce resources as a result of drought, extreme precipitation, and sea level rise, which are already inducing migration from affected areas. The ultimate question for the new Trump administration may be whether it is worth the price to the nation to ignore such potential sources of national and international instability. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon those with an intimate understanding of these issues to continue to advocate the truth as they know it—because climate change will not cease simply because some people refuse to believe in it. Climate change is not a matter of faith. It should be treated as a matter of scientific evidence and investigation.

Jim Schwab

Tools for Stronger Communities

dscf2307What makes a community stronger and more resilient in the face of severe weather threats and disasters? Clearly, preparation, awareness of existing and potential problems, and a willingness to confront harsh realities and solve problems are among the answers. Can we bottle any of that for those communities still trying to find the keys to resilience? Perhaps not, but we can share many of the success stories some communities have produced and hope that the knowledge is disseminated.

One agency with which I have worked at the federal level that seems to understand the value of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, both business and nonprofit, in achieving this dissemination of critical knowledge is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the American Planning Association (APA), we have worked with them through the Digital Coast Partnership, advancing the use of geospatial technology to improve coastal planning and coastal resource management, but also on water and climate issues. I personally participated on behalf of APA in a cooperative effort to assist NOAA in creating its Climate Resilience Toolkit, which aims to give communities and private sector stakeholders some of the tools and information they need to address issues of resilience in the face of climate change and extreme weather events.

More recently, I was very pleased to be part of an effort to add to the toolkit a Built Environment topic, or sub-toolkit. The Built Environment section aims to show that, “Cities and towns are vulnerable to sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat. Cooperative efforts of local government agencies and the private sector can promote adaptation by integrating physical resilience, social resilience, and nature-based solutions.”

A team of us, composed of people from federal agencies, academia, and national organizations, labored for months in contributing specific topics and material to the toolkit to ensure that it covered the most essential points and provided the most useful references to additional sources of information. I am especially happy to have recently completed the Planning and Land Use topic, after it survived the routine vetting by colleagues to ensure accuracy and effective message delivery. It was the last piece added, but I was very happy to put my own small stamp on the overall toolkit site.

The site is not intended to answer all questions; no site can. It is a window into the key issues, with additional resources, and a chance to reach those busy public officials and decision makers who do not have time to read entire tomes on issues like disaster recovery or transit resilience. It is more like a series of briefing papers for those looking for cogent ideas to address some of the most chronic, stress-inducing challenges community leaders face. The Built Environment is one of eleven major sections of the overall toolkit, each of which has a series of topics. For example, a section on Coasts includes several major topic areas such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, and tsunami, each with its own explanation and resources. It is an easily navigated one-stop source of information. The Climate Resilience Toolkit also includes case studies and an index of related tools.

Rummage around. You may find yourself still rummaging an hour later.

It is possible to wonder, and I am sure a few people are wondering, what the fate of such sites will be in a new administration that is highly skeptical of climate change. I don’t know the answer to that, but NOAA has been with us as a federal scientific agency for a long time, and I suspect it has a long future ahead of us. The agency includes the National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and coastal management responsibilities. It is well-known as an employer of thousands of scientists, and its current administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, is both a geologist and former astronaut. She, however, will soon be gone, and it remains to be seen who will take her place.

NOAA, like the U.S. Geological Survey, is primarily a scientific agency. The fact that its mission includes a focus on climate science should not be a detriment. It should be a badge of honor, and any new administration would serve itself well by finding out what its experts have to say and why. The nation has seen some wonderful returns on its investments in fostering such expertise, and it would be foolhardy to curtail it now. The value of NOAA goes further, however, as Sullivan’s leadership in recent years has spurred the agency to seek to bridge the gap between scientific information and public policy decision making, a direction that has allowed Sullivan and many in NOAA to seek partnerships with information conduits like APA, which can effectively reach professional audiences who can multiply the dissemination capabilities of agencies like NOAA. All parties win.

It is critical not only to generate scientific knowledge but to share it with the public in plain English forums that deliver key points. That achievement is why I recommend checking out the Climate Resilience Toolkit. I’m proud to have been part of the effort.

Jim Schwab

A Tail of Two Cities

Cell phone photos aren't always great, but they're quick. :)

Cell phone photos aren’t always great, but they’re quick. 🙂

No, that’s not a typo. It’s a dilemma. It’s what happens when you grow up in one city desperate for a championship, and you end up living in another, and the two face each other in the World Series. Like Cleveland and Chicago. I have lived in one or the other for 58 of my 66 years, only slightly longer in the latter.

As everyone knows by now, if you were listening to the broadcasts, Cleveland has not won the World Series since 1948, the Chicago Cubs since 1908. The Cubs have allegedly been trying to erase the curse of the billy goat since 1945, their last previous appearance in the World Series, ever since William Sianis was denied entry with his goateed pet in that series by none other than Philip Wrigley, who, it is said, claimed that the animal smelled bad. But then, it was a goat. Was he supposed to smell like perfume?

Meanwhile, the Indians made it to the Series in 1954, 1995, and 1997, each time unsuccessfully. In 1954, the winningest team in Major League history (111-43) dropped four straight to the New York Giants, whose Willy Mays made that famous catch of what might have been a Vick Wertz home run. Nothing went right for the team, which suffered four decades of mediocrity before moving to Jacobs Field. And no other team brought a championship to Cleveland until the Cavaliers and LeBron James did it in June.

I rooted for the Cavs earlier this year. I held no brief for the Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland needed a rallying point. I was happy for them.

But the Cubs-Indians matchup put me in a difficult spot. Sentiment for the Cubs finally breaking the curse drove me to the home team, while my relatives in Cleveland obviously felt differently. One suggested I was a traitor to my home town, though I noted that I was actually born in New York. My mother was from Cleveland, hated New York, and dragged my Queens-native father back to Cleveland before I was a year old. He was a New York Giants fan. I never heard the end of the story of 1954 and Willy Mays. But that conflict of loyalties was never my story, and the Giants in any event decamped for San Francisco before I was old enough to know about it.

My sister made a bet, savoring the idea of winning a home-delivered frozen deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s, which I promised if Cleveland won. In return, I extracted the promise of a case of Great Lakes beer if the Cubs triumphed. I’ll pick up my brewskis over the holidays.

But then came this year and this World Series. And those long-suffering, hungry Cubs fans, who finally had a team as hungry as they were. For years, under Tribune Company ownership, the team had lagged under the influence of bean counters. Then came the Ricketts family, determined to win, and another story line emerged.

I am aware, of course, that the Chicago Black Hawks have brought this city three Stanley Cups in the last seven years. The city is not completely hard up for victory.

And yes, I was here for those two three-peat Chicago Bulls teams who so dominated the National Basketball Association under the stardom of Michael Jordan. The city has tasted major glory.

Even the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, and the Bears the Super Bowl way back in 1986. Until LeBron came back, Cleveland had not had any championship since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL trophy in 1964. That’s a long time.

Still. There was that issue of the Cubs. It had to be resolved somehow. And Cleveland did win something this year already.

But these were two damned good teams, and neither was going to make it easy. So I watched every game. I watched last night, thinking the Cubs were on their way, only to watch them give up a lead and go into extra innings. Just to add drama, these two teams in Game 7 had to add the suspense of a rain delay following the ninth inning. Seventeen minutes later, they resumed, and the Cubs’ bats went to work again, and by mid-tenth inning, they were up 8-6. Still, it could not be simple. Both teams were burning through their bullpens, Andrew Miller failing to stop the Cubs and leaving the game, and Aroldis Chapman literally burning out his arm and being replaced in the bottom of the tenth by Carl Edwards Jr., who had to put a runner on base and give up a run. Mike Montgomery came in with a one-run lead and two outs and finished the job, but only with a rapid-fire shot of an infield ground ball to first base by Kris Bryant, and the game was finally over. Nothing about this could be easy.

Somewhere in animal heaven, a billy goat is happy to be relieved of his historic burden. He is probably wagging his stubby tail. The curse was probably never his idea anyway. Just like our dog, a Springer spaniel named Roscoe, was less than thrilled listening to the fireworks in the neighborhood when the game was over. He was shaking like a leaf. He doesn’t like thunder, either. He’ll be very happy when the celebration is over.


Jim Schwab