Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 19, 2013

Environmental InSecurity and Cognitive Dissonance

Filed under: Climate Change — by Christopher Bellavita on March 19, 2013

Homeland Security Watch welcomes Terry O’Sullivan to our group of occasional authors.  Terry is Associate Director, Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security Policy Research, at the University of Akron


Many scholars cite the infamous 1633 trial of Galileo Galilei as the end of the Italian Renaissance. As is commonly known, Galileo was tried by the Catholic Inquisition for challenging the Church’s centuries-old, Earth-centric view of the solar system/universe with the alternative sun-centric, Copernican model, which had been first proposed in 1543.

In part, Galileo was led to this challenge because of the 1609 invention of the telescope, a new technology he believed would change the minds of educated Florentian society, given the overwhelming, meticulous celestial scientific evidence he had gathered over the ensuing 20-plus years.

But, of course, Galileo was almost dead wrong.

His new evidence actually worsened, not improved, the counter-reaction to what had previously been only an abstract Copernican challenge. The Pope saw his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems book as a direct affront to Church power and authority. Galileo was tried before the Inquisition, and forced to renounce Copernicanism, saying “I affirm, therefore, on my conscience, that I do not now hold the condemned opinion and have not held it since the decision of authorities… I am here in your hands–do with me what you please.” His book was banned, and he died a broken man less than ten years later.

Nearly 400 years after Galileo’s trial by Inquisition, modern society would generally prefer to believe that we would not so blithely reject scientific evidence, merely because it challenged the convention wisdom.

But scientific “apostasy” continues to be punished, hounded, and denounced, as numerous politicians and climate scientists have discovered to their dismay in recent years. Some of the challenges have to do with sincere but misguided doubts about the science, some with politically and economically cynical and self-interested positions by the fossil fuels industry and its allies.

But much also has to do with the way people handle cognitive dissonance, and other ways new information is individually, societally, and politically processed.

I Think, Therefore I Sort
Cognitive dissonance is the often intense, emotional and intellectual discomfort caused by simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or information. As the psychology literature has repeatedly shown, cognitive dissonance can lead to “irrational” thinking; people’s emotional response to conflicting information or ideas motivates them to reduce conflict/dissonance by rejecting disconfirming thoughts or ideas that don’t fit their position or even world view, or adding new ones to create a consistent belief system.

Two other classic identified human cognitive frailties appear to combine with cognitive dissonance and contribute to our inability to process the enormity and complexity of problems such as climate change: the difficulty of seeing connections across boundaries of time and space, and an inability to see the full impacts of our actions due to delays in the system. When you push the first domino, you may not understand where, what, or when the result will be.

These are common human traits, and we all experience them to some extent in our personal and professional lives, no matter how intellectually honest and analytically rigorous we may be. The power of conflicting human emotions and intellect is vast – particularly as that influences current and historic political and science discourse, and as it pertains intensely – even painfully – to what may yet turn out to be the gravest “slow disaster” security issue in human history.

Extreme weather-related natural disasters, increasing ocean-level rise, food and water supply disruptions, and other results of changing climate are national security, and homeland security issues.

Far from being fabricated or exaggerated, as some critics maintain, the rapidly accumulating evidence – reflected in dozens of high-level scientific and security institutions’ reports, including the U.S. DoD Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and various Intelligence Community-commissioned analyses – shows increasingly that the worst-case climate change scenarios of only a few years ago are now becoming seen as the most probable outcomes, absent concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change is Security
Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces (PACCOM) Admiral Samuel Locklear met recently with academic national security experts in Boston. Afterwards, in response to a reporter who wondered what the top security threat was in the Pacific Command, instead of citing North Korean nuclear saber rattling or Chinese muscle-flexing, Locklear insisted that geopolitical disruption related to climate change “…is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.” “People are surprised sometimes…” that he emphasizes this, he said, but global warming-related destabilization will occur in part because so much of the world’s population lives near coasts: “The ice is melting and sea is getting higher… I’m into the consequence management side of it,” the Admiral said.

These climate stresses will create a worsening interplay of social, economic, and political disruption, and contribute, ultimately, to more weak and failed governments, and potential political violence – including terrorism. Climate change is already having an economic impact worldwide – costing, by one estimate, $1.2 trillion dollars annually, equal to 1.6% of global GDP.

These human disasters are all potential futures – but may already be having an impact. For instance, some observers believe the Arab spring/Arab-awakening may have been triggered in part by climate-related crop failures and food price spikes that led to Tunisian protests. The rest is ongoing history – leading all the way through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria – so far.

There is no legitimate scientific debate about the two pivotal facts of global warming: First, the planet has been warming since the beginning of the industrial revolution; and second, this has primarily been caused by the human burning of fossil fuels and the atmospheric release of massive amounts of greenhouse gases – especially carbon dioxide.

This is a scientific consensus supported by 98% or more of climate scientists, and over 120 years of increasingly vast and sophisticated evidence. Thus, the current “debate” is mostly a political, not a scientific one.

Disasters like Superstorm Sandy, the ongoing southwestern American drought and wildfire cycle, and new projections of rising sea levels (now projected to likely rise three feet by 2100 if global trends remain unchanged) all must be a wakeup call for Americans. The science is growing more robust and conclusive every year, and the news is bad. The famous so-called temperature “hockey stick” graph is becoming a climate scythe, as recent evidence indicates the world had been cooling over the last several thousand years, before temperatures shot up with the Industrial Revolution’s burning of fossil fuels.

Yet climate change skepticism and denial remains a powerful force in the American political debate. Despite the fact that both 2008 presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, affirmed the existence of global warming and the need for American policy response to mitigate it, resistance has grown in the years since then.

While no one is being literally burned at the stake, some have been politically and metaphorically burned – which has served to strike fear into those who might otherwise step forward in support of the basic facts, and of effective solutions.

The basic scientific facts are settled, even if there are many details still uncertain. But the fact is that as trillions of dollars have been spent on pursuing international terrorism, other things critical to the long-term security and resilience of the United States and the world are being neglected – falling prey, in part, to societal cognitive dissonance and failures of imagination.

Climate change is likely the biggest homeland and national security issue of our lifetimes. Yet it confronts powerful forces, including human cognitive dissonance, and the tendency to miss time-and-space connections and “slow disaster” situations where the results are not seen until much later. Sadly, some of the results are already here.

We deny and dither at our growing peril.

Explanation of Climate Change Sea Level Rise [15 minutes]:

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2013 @ 6:29 am

Well I just lost a comment almost as long as the post so refine it to the question why no climatolgist employed anywhere in DHS?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2013 @ 6:30 am

And no contracts ever let to study the impacts of Climate on HS by DHS?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2013 @ 6:48 am

And the foreign policy of Greenland is controlled by Denmark?

Comment by Terry O'Sullivan

March 19, 2013 @ 11:34 am

Greenland is indeed an autonomous territory of Denmark, yes.

And I would be astonished if at least FEMA does not have a climatologist on staff — but given the politics and pressures from Congress these days, I suppose I shouldn’t be.

The one thing that can be said is that FEMA is at least a consumer of weather and climate data and expertise, through liaison with NOAA, National Weather Service, and related agencies.

But to the overall point: Clearly DHS must embrace climate change realities more than they have. It’s appalling that they are not — or cannot be, due to the politics — on the forefront of at least mitigation and adaptation-related research and response.

In my mind yet another reason FEMA should be separated from DHS and accorded (again) cabinet-level status. These issues should not be taking a back seat in homeland security, however defined.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

Thanks Terry! And now in new law Congress has assigned FEMA to study disaster resilence but has allowed FEMA to use its overdue National Mitigation Strategy inb its place.

Two such earlier Mitigation Strategies can be found at


Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 19, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

Great piece. Cognitive dissonance indeed.

The fact remains that the argument of syntax; Global warming and climate change doesn’t play well in Peoria.

Below are three well respected and well sourced articles.



And some would say most of the current crises in the Middle East have roots over water rights that have been in place for over two millennia. Even the code of King Hammurabi contains as many as 300 sections dealing with irrigation.

And it is difficult in this country to wrap our heads around our egregious waste of resources. Plumbing, waste management, agriculture, and other superficial usage all use large amounts of potable water.

Americans don’t get this;

Hence the cognitive dissonance. And this is a bit of a stretch; the creep and encroachment of what we believe we are entitled to and what we have come to expect as normal is in fact not.

We no longer compete well and will continue to rely on coercion and military projection to maintain our way of life. Now, if that is how all societies ebb and flow then we are just the “next” one to come and go. We used to have water fountains in public places, buildings, and schools etc.

Now, we pay for it…and its more expensive than gasoline gallon for gallon. Beverage companies drive up to rivers and suck it up, usually for free and re bottle it and sell it.

Water is BIG business;


And it’s also illegal to harvest and cistern in many states. That may be some hyperbole, but its worth researching to get to ground truth. It sounds terse, but follow the money. The idea of conservation and awareness of sustainable and unsustainable practices were repositioned during the 60’s and remains decidedly “left” of center.

Big business, lobbyists, and a host of other constituencies are all impacted.

Follow the money and one will see why our heads are buried in the sand.

Comment by Terry O'Sullivan

March 20, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

Bill: Thanks for the great weblink to the FEMA index. I’ve been looking at some of the resources with great interest.

Dan: Thanks for the good word — and agree completely that CC and GW don’t play well in parts of Peoria — though after the last two years of withering drought and freak storms, the polls are showing Americans turning around on the climate change issue.

Also, agreed that much of the “cognitive dissonance” revolves around resources issues — oil, water, food, etc., including our own inability to acknowledge that sustainable growth is needed. The problem, of course, is that unless and until our dysfunctional political system can get around to even acknowledging that we have a (resource) drinking problem, there won’t be much environmental OR resource sobriety.

And no question, as I only alluded to in the essay, but you point out: A lot of this is about following the money. There are trillions of dollars for a small minority at stake in keeping the old model as long as possible, and they are keeping these issues paralyzed — just as Naomi Oreskes’ great book, Merchants of Doubt, pointed out the tobacco companies did for decades.

Thanks for the comments, gents!

Comment by waste treatment

August 22, 2017 @ 10:51 pm

The earth is our common living house, so we have duilty to protect it. At present, the earth suffers the serious pollution, especially the waste pollution. Thus waste disposal method has become the a hot topic in surrounding. waste recycling plant can efficiently sort many useful materials from waste mixture.

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