This has been an especially busy several days in homeland security. The list of issues and events could be quite long. The following strike me as requiring at least a reference here.
The decision to close the Los Angeles public schools after receiving an emailed terrorist threat was defended by the LA Times editorial board. They wrote, “with the San Bernardino shootings still a vivid memory, and with a somewhat more detailed threat in hand, district officials believed they had little choice but to close the schools. Had anything happened to a student or teacher, the horror would have been unspeakable, a wound from which it would be hard to recover. It’s easy to understand why the district erred on the side of safety.”
“We are born of immigrants. That is who we are. Immigration is our origin story. And for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character; it’s our oldest tradition. It’s who we are. It’s part of what makes us exceptional,” the President told new citizens who had just participated in a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives. Given increasing public anxieity regarding immigrants, it was a powerful, even poignant event.
Writing in Politico Michael Hirsh argues that the recent terrorist attacks and even more recent climate deal in Paris reflect the darkest and the brightest aspects of life on our planet. He writes, “The question is whether the political leaders who signed what is being called “L’accord de Paris” were more effective in their efforts to preserve this civilization than the terrorists were in theirs to destroy it. Granted, the climate pact has plenty of holes—the biggest of which is that it is fairly nonbinding—but it still represents the strongest global consensus in two decades on climate change, bringing in nearly every nation on earth…”
Today is a historic day. Never has a conference received so many officials from so many countries. Never, I say never, have the stakes of an international meeting been so high, for this is about the future of the planet and the future of life… I am not choosing between the fight against terrorism and the fight against global warming. We must leave our children more than a world free of terror, we owe them a planet protected from disasters, a viable, livable planet.
Another opening speaker said, the people of the planet have become “the architects of our own destruction” and warned of “impending catastrophe”. It could be asked, which threat — extreme violence or extreme weather — was he addressing? Many of the speakers pivoted from terrorism to climate, with some pointing to potential intersections.
As dense smog, measuring twenty times worse than the safety threshold, enveloped Beijing, Shanghai and much of northern China, President Xi Jinping told delegates gathered at Le Bourget that addressing the risk of climate change ought not be allowed to dilute “the legitimate needs of developing countries to reduce poverty and improve their people’s living standards.”
Three decades ago at a dinner in Paris a distinguished Swede asked me, “If you are presented two problems — one important, the other urgent — to which do you attend?” My hesitation was a sufficient answer for him. “The urgent emerged from prior neglect of something important. Do not repeat the same mistake.”
In several jurisdictions this is election day, mostly for state and local officials. It also begins the one-year countdown for the 2016 presidential election.
Following are links to the issue-sections of five currently prominent presidential contenders. Each of these links connect to the candidate’s position on issues this blog treats as relevant to homeland security.
Ben Carson: Among the ten policy issues on Dr. Carson’s campaign website, his commitment to keeping Gitmo open is given top tier attention. The Second Amendment is highlighted as providing “our citizens the right to protect themselves from threats foreign or domestic.”
Marco Rubio: The Senator from Florida gives particular attention to defeating ISIS and ties this to lone-wolf attacks in order to “protect the homeland”. Mr. Rubio offers, “the Second Amendment is about the American Dream”.
Bernie Sanders: Under the rubric War and Peace, Senator Sanders outlines his approach to combating terrorism. Elsewhere he also gives considerable attention to climate change and to immigration reform. In this quick review of campaign websites, the Senator from Vermont is the only currently leading contender to address intelligence-gathering, saying, “We must not trade away our constitutional rights and civil liberties for the illusion of security”.
Donald J. Trump: Immigration has been a signature issue for Mr. Trump. His position on the Second Amendment almost certainly has HS implications.
In the 2008 presidential campaign Senator Obama gathered an explicit Homeland Security Advisory Council and Senator McCain had an identifiable HS sub-set within his more informal campaign policy structure. I will be surprised to see homeland security — as an organizing principle — get anything close to equal attention in the current presidential campaign.
California is now in its fourth year of drought. In a state this big precipitation varies widely, but for example, in Bakersfield the average annual precipitation is 6.4 inches and through the end of September roughly 4.5 inches. This year’s total at the end of September was 2.8 inches. The winter snowpack was almost non-existent this year. The lowest in 500 years according to some.
The State of California reports reservoir levels as of October 15 are roughly two-thirds below capacity and less than half historic averages. Some examples: Castaic Lake 31% of capacity (40% of year to date average); Don Pedro 31% of capacity (47% of average); Exchequer 8% of capacity (18% of average); Folsom Lake 17% of capacity (31% of average); Lake Oroville 29% of capacity (48% of average); Lake Perris 36% (47% of average); Millerton Lake 35% of capacity (90% of average); New Melones 11% of capacity (20% of average); Pine Flat 12% of capacity (34% of average); San Luis 18% of capacity (35% of average); Lake Shasta 33% of capacity (56% of average); and Trinity Lake 21% of capacity (32% of average).
Since early this year Californians have cut their total water usage. For June, July, and August the cumulative statewide savings rate was 28.7% equal to 611,566 acre-feet of water saved. The Governor’s office has set a goal of saving 1.2 million acre-feet of water by February 2016. Some are seeing signs of a long-term shift in cultural attitudes toward water use. Last week the LA Times advocated public shaming of Southern California water hogs.
Since January 1 there have been 5942 wildfires in California, consuming 307,335 acres, almost triple a five year average.
All of which further complicates the already tough job of selling flood insurance in California.
Yet last week Accuweather reported accumulating evidence for a powerful 2015-2016 El Nino, beginning to impact California in late November into December.
The most likely, and most impactful, scenario during this winter is that California will get significant precipitation in the form of both rain and snow.
“California will be much more active weather-wise this winter than last winter,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Ben Noll said.
Copious amounts of rain from systems over the same area, a theme which occurs often during this type of weather pattern, can lead to problems for California.
Locals may be faced with flooding and mudslides, which could prove devastating for home and property owners. This will be especially problematic over recent burn scar areas, where rampant wildfires have charred millions of acres.
According to the Census Bureau there are 12,542,460 households in California. According to FEMA there are 229,538 flood insurance policies in force. Hmmm?
Perhaps the largest “event” security operation ever in our history is unfolding before our eyes in real time on cable news and I still can’t help get over that this Pope is being transported around in a small Fiat hatchback. Would anyone, can anyone, remark on the choice of vehicle in terms of security?
My (half) joke aside, I do want to elicit your opinions, views, and even random thoughts concerning Pope Francis’ visit as it impacts homeland security. I origninally thought to ask to keep remarks focused on the security aspect of his trip. But it occurred to me that many of the subjects he has or is expected to talk about – immigration, climate change, financial inequality – are homeland security issues.
Much has already been written on the security efforts involved in each of the cities he will be visiting. Has enough been done in terms of security? Too much?
What about the impact of his words on homeland security related topics? Can he move the needle regarding these subjects, or will everyone listen politely and then go back to their previous thoughts/beliefs/opinions as soon as he leaves?
Picking one of his favorite topics, can income inequality/concern for the poor become a homeland security topic? Should it?
The phrase “homeland security” was never uttered. But I perceive a considerable connection. One excerpt:
We also know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue. That is not deniable. And we are going to have to do some adaptation, and we are going to have to help communities be resilient, because of these trend lines we are not going to be able to stop on a dime. We’re not going to be able to stop tomorrow.
But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively. People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.
That’s one path we can take. The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it. This is within our power. This is a solvable problem if we start now.
Each month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a review of weather data. What the accumulating data demonstrates are increasing departures from historic means, much more extreme weather of every sort.
While some continue to argue the cause for this shift, there is more and more consensus that the data confirms an emerging climate much different than that experienced by recent generations. (Monday I received a briefing on the so-called Kankakee Torrent of 14,000 to 19,000 years ago. This suggests that even extremes are relative).
The current outlook for 2015 is for slightly lower than average retail food price inflation, with supermarket prices expected to rise 1.75 to 2.75 percent over 2014 levels. Despite drought conditions in California, the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower oil prices could have a mitigating effect on fresh fruit and vegetable prices in 2015. As of June, ERS predicts fresh fruit prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent and fresh vegetable prices 2.0 to 3.0 percent in 2015, close to the 20-year historical average.
But if the current drought would extend for another several years, and especially if drought in one agricultural region is combined with destructive extreme weather in other agricultural regions (e.g. the 2010 drought in Ukraine, Russia, China, and Argentina), the combined consequence can be dire.
While an understanding of cause is usually crucial to prevention and many kinds of mitigation, it is possible to disagree as to cause and develop plausible projections of consequence. In most of life there is a “cone of uncertainty” of some sort, but even when we cannot precisely predict, we may be able to reasonably anticipate.
Over the last several months a UK-US team has attempted to anticipate the impact of extreme weather on global agricultural capacity. They recently released a report, concluding:
... the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and… this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. Additionally, recent studies suggest that our reliance on increasing volumes of global trade, whilst having many benefits, also creates structural vulnerability via a liability to amplify production shocks in some circumstances. Action is therefore needed to improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks, to mitigate their impact on people.
I find the binational report especially interesting for reasons that go beyond the explicit factual analysis. The organization and rhetoric of the report seems a bit bipolar… unable to resolve a persistent tension between two policy/strategy perceptions. One angle tends toward greater redundancy and centralization. The other tends toward greater diversity and decentralization. The authors do not seem self-aware of the tension. It would be interesting, at least to me, to see a principled strategic process for engaging these two alternatives… or possibly complementary approaches.
In the Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, the longest major poem written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one famous stanza has always stood out to me.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
With California having approximately an 840 mile long coastline and the Pacific Ocean covering approximately one-third of the Earth’s surface, decisions, infrastructure improvements, and investment are immediately needed to maintain California as we know it.
Water, water everywhere…
In mid-March an op-ed published by Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, painted a dire picture of the state’s water crisis. Famiglietti wrote that every year since 2011, California has lost around 12 million acre-feet of stored water. In the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, the combined water sources of snow, rivers, reservoirs, soil water and groundwater amounted to a volume that was 34 million acre-feet below normal levels in 2014. And there is no relief in sight. In a nutshell; California has approximately one year of stored water left.
The 25 percent cut in water consumption recently ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown raises critical, economical, and fundamental questions about what life in and the future of California will be like. It is no great surprise that California is suffering through an unprecedented drought with no end in sight. I say unprecedented because while we have a limited context of the region historically, geographically we have inhabited it for a short period of time. But let us be clear: California has been artificially hydrated. That artificiality changed the landscape and also appears to be unsustainable.
“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about this state. “This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented, invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?” Has our innovation and creativity simply delayed Malthus’ postulation?
This artificial environment has yielded tremendous prosperity though. California has built a $2.2 trillion economy. It is the seventh largest economy in the world, more than four times what it was in 1963, when adjusted for inflation. California also feeds much of America. California agriculture is responsible for providing a third of the nation’s vegetables and nearly two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The cattle industry has and continues to be impacted as well. Cattle, its economy, and productivity will continue to experience a significant geographic shift.
And in a just-in-time, tightly coupled, highly complex food system, micro or meta interruptions can have significant unintended and cascading consequences.
With all this agriculture, cattle, revenue, and international impact when does the emergent crisis in California become a homeland security issue?
This to me is more than a meta issue. If one were to remove themselves from the climate change/global warming diatribe we would see an emergent crisis with little means of self-correction. One school of thought says to let nature take its course, allowing the region’s homeostasis to seek its ecological/environmental equilibrium and return to the semi-arid geography it once was. Another school of thought wants to introduce more technology to maintain the artificial environment and to hydrate the region.
To allow the region to naturally return to its previous state on its face is folly. The geoengineering that California has exploited for decades cannot be easily or readily undone. Where do those industries go? How do we replace that agricultural and protein output? Where do we relocate tens of millions of people? All critical difficult leadership questions in my view.
All of these decision points are homeland security issues. Anthropocenic activities can no longer be ignored and must be recognized as homeland security issues.
The first option is to do what we are already doing: lots of talking, attempts to conserve, policy narratives, and legislation; pretty much everything that got us here. It is slow, bureaucratic, and highly politicized.
Resilience and mitigation may have an initial sticker shock. However, if we do not have the funding to do it right the first time, how much more will it cost to repair it?
We have exercised great fear manipulation and amplified the threat to justify programs and spending that does not diminish the threat to any great degree. Lots of drone strikes, 78 fusion centers, trillions spent, diminution of trust, and not a great deal to show for it. We need water, food, and economies that build resilience and capability.
But can Francis achieve a feat that has so far eluded secular powers and inspire decisive action on climate change?
It looks as if he will give it a go. In 2015, the pope will issue a lengthy message on the subject to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, give an address to the UN general assembly and call a summit of the world’s main religions.
Following a visit in March to Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated in 2012 by typhoon Haiyan, the pope will publish a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology. Urging all Catholics to take action on moral and scientific grounds, the document will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to parishioners.
This will be…interesting.
This is intrinsically a homeland security issue. Perhaps not the work on the inputs, but the outputs certainly affect the work across any number of homeland security areas.
In theory, homeland security practitioners desire, encourage, and even plan on non governmental participation in their work. Right? There is a particular push for involvement and cooperation with religious groups.
So how exactly will this anticipated call from one of the world’s great religious leaders be heard? Will it be recognized or ignored?
So many questions…so few answers…so little personal Papal infallibility…
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.
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
Co-Sponsor: Environment & Energy Professional Interest Council (EEPIC)
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.
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.
(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.
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.”
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.
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
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 numerouspoliticians 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.
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.
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]: