Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 12, 2014

Upcoming film: “Extreme Realities: The Link Between Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security”

Filed under: Climate Change — by Arnold Bogis on November 12, 2014

In light of the recent release of the Department of Defense’s “2014 Climate Change Adaption Roadmap,” along with similar contributions from other federal departments, the following trailer for a soon-to-be-released documentary is on topic. It frames current and potential future impacts of climate change in national security terms.

 

If you happen to be in the Boston area, this screening and discussion may be of interest.

Extreme Realities: The Link Between Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security

Film
Series: ENRP Film Series
Open to the Public – Land Hall (Belfer Bldg, 4th Flr)
November 19, 2014
6:00-8:00 p.m.

Related Project: Environment and Natural Resources

Description:

Join us for the next film in the 2014-2015 ENRP Environmental Film Series: “Extreme Realities: The Link Between Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security.” Introductory remarks by Harvard Professor James McCarthy, climate expert & board chair, Union of Concerned Scientists. Discussants: Lt. Katie Burkhart, US Navy Reserve & HKS Master in Public Policy candidate;Captain Michael A. Mullen, US Coast Guard & Harvard National Security Fellow

Refreshments served

Co-Sponsor: Environment & Energy Professional Interest Council (EEPIC)

Contact:

ENRP Program Coordinator
Environment and Natural Resources Program 79 John F. Kennedy Street Cambridge, MA 02138
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Harvard Kennedy School
Email: enrp@hks.harvard.edu
Phone: 617-495-1351
Fax: 617-495-1635
Url: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/project/43/environment_and_natural_resources
.html

October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

May 7, 2014

National Climate Assessment

Filed under: Climate Change — by Philip J. Palin on May 7, 2014

Tuesday the Third National Climate Assessment was released.  The full report is a digital heavy-weight.  You can download individual pieces here.

According to a White House summary, “the report finds that, on the whole, summers are longer and hotter, with longer periods of extended heat. Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall. Rain comes down in heavier downpours. People are experiencing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies. And climate disruptions to water resources and agriculture have been increasing.”

The report is detailed, data-driven, and the online version is media-rich. In my opinion, the web-site is over-complicated and it uses a great deal of white text on blue background or thin light blue on white background… initially pleasing but not good for sustained engagement.

I suggest downloading the overview PDF (20 pages, 4.93 MB) and starting there. Reports on individual states are also available.

There are alternative views. Writing at Fox News, Mario Lewis offers, “the new report is an alarmist document designed to scare people and build political support for unpopular policies such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and EPA regulatory mandates.”

There is a section of the report on Response Strategies.  I cannot recommend the website for accessing this information.  You can download five separate PDFs here, scroll down.

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

May 2, 2013

Catastrophe: Should’a, Would’a, Could’a

“I should prefer Mozart. Mostly I listen to 70s hits.”

“I should eat a hot breakfast, but usually have a powerbar instead.”

“I should work-out three or four times a week, maybe I walk around the block twice.”

Should has become moralistic.  It is typically used as a kind of anti-verb, ascribing — often anticipating — non-action.

I have heard a lot of “shoulds” in regard to the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility. The April 17 blast killed 14 and injured more than 190 in the town of 2700.

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

“We should do a better job sharing what we know about the risk.”

“We should focus more on pre-event prevention and mitigation.”

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

According to a November 2012 analysis undertaken by the Congressional Research Service, 6,985 chemical facilities self-report they pose a risk to populations greater than 1,000. There are 90 that self-report a worst-case risk affecting up to 1 million people.

The West facility was not included in the CRS analysis.  They did not self-report — or evidently self-conceive — a worst case scenario that would seriously harm anyone.

As regular readers know I have for a few years worked on catastrophe preparedness.

One of the most remarkable — and absolutely predictable — aspects of this gig is the readiness — preference really — by nearly everyone to define catastrophe as something non-catastrophic.  I saw it again last week and this.  It extends across the public-private divide and every level of government.  When a few of us argue otherwise we are being pedantic, unrealistic, and wasting people’s time.

We should give regular time and energy — maybe five percent of overall effort — to truly catastrophic risks: Global pandemic, significant earthquakes and cyclonic events hitting major urban areas, sustained collapse of the electrical grid whatever the cause. Each of these could have far-reaching secondary and tertiary effects.  In some regions I would include wildfire and flooding. If you have a chemical storage or processing facility nearby that is absolutely worth worst-case thinking now not later.

In many cases the most important issues relate to the mitigation of systemic vulnerabilities that are threat-agnostic.  ”Fixing” vulnerabilities can reduce consequences for a whole host of threats, including non-catastrophic threats.

USA Today editorialized, “The Boston Marathon bombings overshadowed the disaster in Texas, but what happened in West was deadlier, and preventing the next fertilizer accident should command serious attention.”

There’s that anti-verb again.

–+–

And how I wish I’d, wish I’d thought a little bit more
Now shoulda, woulda, coulda I means I’m out of time
Shoulda, woulda, coulda can’t change your mind
And I wonder, wonder what I’m going to do
Shoulda, woulda coulda are the last words of a fool

Can’t change your mind
Can’t change your mind

Beverly Knight

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]: