The Climate Risk Spectrum

The Economist, in a rather one-sided article, is dubious about the increasingly touted link between climate change and human conflict. It’s true that the “climate wars” narrative is starting to take on a life of its own. I’ve even used the term as a headline in a post. But it’s also obvious (from the comment thread in that post) that environmental security experts are careful not to make direct links between climate change and war. Rather, what they often say is that climate change represents a “threat multiplier” in geopolitical hot spots, where a marginal environment, resource conflict and chronic state instability are already the norm.

That said, there is this recent video montage of U.S. generals and admirals expressing their deep concerns about climate change. Additionally, there is a whole other set of geopolitical issues that are now being seen through the climate security lens.

The Economist article signals that the broader assertions of climate-triggered conflict are about to be scrutinized more closely. In that sense, environmental security experts and military brass who warn about global warming ought to be prepared for the kinds of tough questions that climate scientists are routinely asked about their projections.

That brings us back to the elephant in the room: Uncertainty. In a previous thread on this blog, one commenter who works in intelligence talked about how the issue of uncertainty figures into policy debates on various national security threats. He saw interesting parallels to the climate policy debate. In an email, I asked “Andy” to elaborate on these similarities and also to comment on the video of military professionals expressing their concerns about climate change. After providing some of his background, “Andy” offers a perspective that I hope triggers a productive discussion on the intersection between risk, policy, and cost/benefit considerations.


My experience is military intelligence ““ I’ve never worked for a civilian agency, though I’ve spent time working with people that do, obviously.  My current job involves unmanned aerial vehicles (predator and reaper mainly) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I’ve been in the intelligence business for almost 20 years and my expertise is intelligence support to military forces, contingency planning and strategic warning.

The video montage is interesting. They are doing what military and intelligence people do ““ they see a potential threat which stimulates their institutional desire to contingency plan for that threat.  They see the scope of the threat and potential impacts are still uncertain but real enough to cause genuine concern.  One shouldn’t interpret this as a call-to-action for one’s preferred ideological solution. It’s actually a call for more analysis ““ not analysis of the science (which is outside their expertise) – but analysis of what can and should be done to address the problem.  The process for this in national security is contingency planning and to me, that is the key concept that I take away from the video, even though it’s not explicitly stated.

Good contingency planning doesn’t rely on fixed assumptions because plans made under today’s assumptions are likely to fail when they meet tomorrow’s reality. Rarely do our assumptions hold true over time.   Therefore we need a holistic and flexible approach which considers a variety of assumptions.  We need to consider resource allocation on a continuum and prioritize the potential threat of climate change under a variety of assumptions vs other potential and not-so-potential threats, interests and values.  We can’t afford to put all our eggs in one basket.

The military, for example, aspires to have a “full spectrum” force that can deal with humanitarian crises, high-intensity conventional warfare and everything in between.  Part of that includes planning for both likely and unlikely scenarios.  As a result the military is rarely fully-prepared for any one contingency, but is usually “prepared enough” for a wide range of contingencies.  That method of dealing with uncertainty has proven itself over time.  I personally believe (and this is probably the result of my own professional bias) that we need to prepare for climate change in a similar “full spectrum” manner, at least until there is sufficient political consensus to focus efforts in one area.

What is politically possible also needs to be considered simply because political structures (governments in this case) usually aren’t willing to suffer high opportunity costs unless the solution is a sure thing.  I think those who are predisposed to certain policy solutions need to keep that in mind ““ particularly those at the CAGW end of the spectrum.  From my armchair I think a lot of those advocates are shooting themselves in the foot.  Litmus tests regarding what is appropriate skepticism, for example, are not likely to generate the political support necessary to enable the policy you want ““ quite the opposite actually.  You’ll get high-fives from supporters and alienation from everyone else.  In order to achieve policy action on the scale you believe is required, you need to make the tent bigger, not smaller.  So it seems to me you are thinking tactically and not strategically ““ maybe you win some battles, but you risk losing the war.  Just something to think about.

One thing to keep in mind about senior military officers and national security people is that they are a parochial bunch who usually have bureaucratic interest in mind.  Despite all the intelligence reforms after 9/11, parochial interest still reigns and all the various agencies both cooperate and compete.  As our federal budget increasingly comes under intense pressure, you’re going to see a lot of people try to keep their organizations away from the budget ax by taking on new “threats.”  Climate change therefore represents an opportunity for parochialism that can’t be completely ignored when assessing the views of senior officials with budgetary skin in the game.  That’s a sad indictment of my own organization and profession, but I’ve seen it all too often to believe it will be any different regarding climate change.

Returning to the national security aspect of climate change for a minute, I think the focus will primarily be on consequence management because of the policy tools we have in the greater policy toolbox.  We are not equipped to deal with, for example, a carbon-reduction strategy.  The US military, in particular, has unique capabilities to quickly react to problems overseas ““ see the recent disaster in Haiti, for example.  Since our toolbox is limited and since we inevitably have our institutional parochialism, I doubt you will see many national security folks argue for a carbon reduction strategy if that will negatively impact their parochial interests (ie. budgets) ““ in other words, the military and national security bureaucracy will, in my judgment, tend to favor consequence management policies over carbon reduction.

Finally, one reason that I’ve become so interested in climate change is because it is very similar in character (but not content) to traditional national security problems.  I mentioned a few such problems in my earlier comment and I’ll focus on one here ““ nuclear terrorism.  Currently, this is deemed the preeminent threat to US national security (see here for a summary). This is a threat that’s difficult to quantify in terms of probabilities and there is a wide range of opinion on how to deal with it.  There are “denialists” who think it’s not much of a problem at all ““so unlikely as to be irrelevant and thus requiring no policy change.  At the other end of the spectrum are those who think it’s only a matter of time before a US city gets nuked unless we take bold and decisive action now.  Does that dichotomy sound familiar?  Of course there is a middle-ground where we take reasonable, cost-effective measures to reduce the threat (increased security, better controls of nuclear material, better intelligence and detection), create and maintain capabilities to deal with the consequences should the threat materialize (response teams, medical and decontamination capabilities, etc.)  and work on a long-term solution to the problem (reduction/elimination of nuclear weapons, more limits and oversight of nuclear activities internationally, etc.).  Not coincidentally, those cost-effective measures have positive secondary effects in other areas.

Iran’s nuclear program is another example.  There are many uncertainties regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities.  Even if we assume the worst, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the sure-fire remedy ““ toppling the government through military force ““ would be the wisest option.  Actions have consequences and before formulating policy we need to be reasonably sure the cure won’t be worse than the disease.

In short, I see a lot of wishful thinking on both sides of the climate change debate rooted in unrealistic and unachievable policy preferences.  I can’t definitively speak to intentions, but my sense is that many people begin with a policy preference borne out of tribal ideology instead of thoroughly examining the problem in all its complexity. In my opinion, what we need is serious policy analysis that examine costs, benefits and risks and we need to create plans that include a variety of actions flowing from a variety of assumptions instead of considering only the policy we are predisposed to.


What do you think of the framework Andy proposes for addressing the vexing issues of uncertainty, security threats and cost-benefit considerations?

24 Responses to “The Climate Risk Spectrum”

  1. AMac says:

    Excellent insights. I wonder if Andy’s nuclear-terrorism analogy might lead to some fresh thinking within the various AGW tribes (or camps).
    For instance, there must be those holding to the CAGW stance who see nuclear terrorism as a relatively low priority–despite the urgent warnings of some experts in that field.  Conversely, among those who believe that the IPCC unduly promotes alarmism, some must view the prospect of an American (or EU, or Oz) city under a mushroom cloud as a clarion call to preventive action.
    So:  at least some subsets of C-a-s readers can reflect on their propensity to heed the well-founded (but uncertain, and flawed) warnings of one group of experts.  While downplaying the well-founded (but uncertain, and flawed) messages from a different set of specialists.
    And of course the first impulse is to note the limits of the analogy:  “X is not like Y because…”  But there’s also a useful nugget that shouldn’t be overlooked:  reasonable people  differ in threat evaluation, and again in choosing the best options to meet that threat.
    The analogy also includes a piece of C-a-s standard fare:  uncertainty.  CAGW hasn’t happened–yet–and neither has the detonation of a smuggled nuke.  When (if) either happens, the window for the most effective counter-strategies will have closed.

  2. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “what we need is serious policy analysis that examine costs, benefits and risks and we need to create plans that include a variety of actions flowing from a variety of assumptions”
    Ok does anyone seriously believe that this hasn’t already been done? IPCC WG III, Stern, Garnaut, IEA, CBO…the list goes on….

  3. Schuyler Null says:

    Really interesting and insightful read.  I found the bit about the military favoring consequence management over carbon reduction, for budgetary reasons, pretty interesting.

    Carbon reduction is useful not only for its longer-term climate change mitigation effects also for its potential to improve force effectiveness which presumably, is the number one interest of all soldiers.   Increased efficiency can mean greater range and mobility, reduced fuel requirements (weight, number of fuel convoys, etc), and greater self-sufficiency.  The fewer involved in logistics, the more can be deployed at the “tip of the spear,” and the less vulnerable supply lines are to a marauding enemy – especially important in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where they are so often targeted.

  4. Sashka says:

    If you define the sides as frantic panic-mongering vs. common sense then I agree that the Economist article is indeed one-sided.

    The video is painful to watch. These people don’t understand the science (the worst are the “oceanographer” rear admiral who seems to be a long lost brother of Joe Romm and the female journo who is featured for unclear reasons) and are clearly not equipped to think through the multiplicity of problems that we are going to face, nor place the warming in the context of those threats. Woolsey had an unintentionally bright moment, though, when he mentioned that most of his proposals (whatever they were, clearly CO2 reduction weren’t among them) make sense irrespective of warming.

    I like what Andy is writing. I liked what he said in his #413 in the old thread, well, because this is what I am saying all the time myself, not in so many words. The parallel to the nuclear threat may be useful to some extent but it’s application to policy debate is limited. This is because the probability rules in the two “games” are very different. We really cannot allow a nuclear attack on a major American city, period. The consequences will be so dire that it’s hard to even imagine. The climate change, even in the worst case scenario, will be gradual and will allow possibilities for adaptation. One can argue that Africa will suffer disproportionately (which may be true but not necessarily for climate related reasons) but it should be clear America will be fine for the foreseeable period time. Quite possibly even better off.

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    Your interpretation of the Economist article is equally skewed. I don’t have any objection to what was written–only what was left out, either for length purposes or some other editorial reasons.

    To start with, I read (and reviewed) Cleo Paskal’s book, which does not come off as alarmist. Secondly, she is quoted in the Economist story as saying that climate change will have “specific”  consequences. Yet the author never follows up on that, or just left the rest of her quote out.

    Lastly, the story leaves the impression that experts like Paskal are banging the climate change drum. That’s not true. In fact, she and many others have quite nuanced views about this topic. They see climate change as part of a larger portfolio of environmentally-related issues that is quite difficult to quantify, when you throw in the obvious political, cultural, and economic  forces also at work.

    So these folks have a more complex view of climate change as a “forcing action” than the article would lead you to believe–simply because nobody is quoted offering that side of the story.

    I do agree, however, that the video presents a pretty simplified view, but there again, it’s hard to know what was edited out for the purposes of a cleaner narrative.

  6. Tom Fuller says:

    It all sounds very much like Pielke Sr. territory. And about time…
    Resiliency. Identify resource constraints. Healthcare, water supplies, agriculture.
    Nice to know the military can still occasionally make sense…

  7. Judith Curry says:

    Bravo Andy!

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom (6):

    That last line seems unnecesarily disparaging. A bit of a broad brush you’re painting with, no?

  9. Tom Fuller says:

    Well, as a former serviceman I might find support for the idea that I was being too kind ;).  Andy certainly made sense, but I tend to lean toward’s Grouch Marx’s definition of military intelligence…

  10. Andy says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments so far, and a special thanks to Keith who thought my input valuable enough to put into a post.  As I said in my email to Keith, I’ve been a lurker in the climate blogosphere for some time and it was this blog that prompted me to stick my neck out a bit and offer my own perspective.

    I will try to respond to any comments directed my way, but I am currently traveling until Monday so replies may be a bit tardy.

    Marlowe (#2) – Of those you listed I’m only familiar with WG III and it focuses pretty much exclusively on carbon reduction.  While I think that’s necessary over the long-term, in my judgment WGIII is overly optimistic about what can be accomplished within the estimated timeframes.  It also represents a case of putting all our collective eggs in one basket – What happens, for instance, if we attempt to adopt the IPCC recommendations and we fail?  Failure could be because the warming is worse than originally thought, or because the policy recommendations were insufficient, or because the obstacles to implementing the policy were greater than originally thought, or any number of other reasons.  That’s all assuming those recommendations are politically viable today, which they certainly are not.

    So in my opinion we can’t assume GHG reduction policy will be successful even if one believes that should be the main effort. At a minimum we need some redundancy should the main effort fail, be delayed or hit any number of potholes along the way.  We could find ourselves in 2050 having still failed to meet the 2030 targets and no backup plan other than crisis management.  And again, all that assumes the recommended measures are politically viable today.

    Point being is that it is wise to hedge against uncertainty, and not just scientific uncertainty.  Even if there were no scientific uncertainty, there will always be policy uncertainty.  I think it would only be wise to promote a single-track strategy if both the science and policy are virtually certain.  In my opinion, neither are certain enough to justify a single-track strategy.
    Tom & Keith (#6, 8, 9)
    Believe me, I’ve heard all the jokes about “military intelligence” so please do not worry about offending me.  The truth is that we are often wrong which is what makes intelligence a humbling profession.  At the same time, we serve political masters and sometimes we take the blame for their policy mistakes while they take credit for our intelligence successes.  That’s just the way things are.

  11. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom, I thought that was George Carlin.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    Andy, thanks for being a good sport. I’m looking forward to the discussion. And thanks again for your illuminating post.

  13. Tom Fuller says:

    Are you aware of any regional scenarios developed that try to integrate external forces (not just climate) into what-if studies?
    For example, the region everyone was worrying about 5 years ago was the Stans, and I saw studies looking at ethnic tensions and religious differences, but nothing that balanced that with views on how  resource extraction would change the dynamics in the area.

  14. kdk33 says:

    Decarbonization won’t be effective unless it is global, and global cooperation seems unlikely.  These days anyway.

    Unilateral decarbonization is risky not only because it is ineffective, but because it weakens our economy relative to others, who might not be friendly.   In a weakened state, a crises or two…

    There is value in delay: climate science will improve, alternative energies technologies will improve (or new ones emerge) and petroleum prices will increase making alternative energy more competitive.

    Advocating business as usual does not equate to denying radiative physics.

  15. Andy says:

    Tom (#13),
    There is work of that type, but much of it seems spotty.  Since I’m traveling I’m limited in what I can look up, but two that may be useful to you are the Joint Operating Environment published by the Joint Forces Command, and the Global Trends series of analyses published by the National Intelligence Council.
    Hope that helps.  I’m sure there are specific regional studies available, which I can find once I get back next week.

  16. Atomic Hairdryer says:

    Most MI folks are probably quite happy with people believing in Marx, but not necessarily Marxism.
    There are existing situations that may be related to climate change, or resource competion such as India/Pakistan/Bangladesh or Israel/Syria/Palestine for water, or when Egypt built the Aswan Dam.
    That’s nothing new given fighting over water rights has been happening for centuries, just we can now do things on a far larger scale, annoy far more people and cause far more environmental damage if it’s done badly. If things go very bad, that’s when the military is usually expected to step in, and why there are briefings or contigency plans.

  17. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Tom, there’s also the UK MOD’s <a href=””>Global Strategic Trends Programme</a>. Similar to NIC’s Global Trends.

    The reports are fun to read. For example, the 2006 edition of Strategic Trends gave a long list of Strategic Shocks (unexpected game-changers) that might occur before 2036. These included a global middle-class revolution, in which the middle classes, increasingly alienated from the super-rich and the underclass and troubled by mounting debts and shrinking pensions, unite to ‘shape transnational processes in their own class interest’; the advent of ‘New Humans’, a master race genetically engineered to have ‘super-enhancement of human attributes, including physical strength and sensory perception’; Gulf Stream collapse; runaway methane release; and new technologies that might have ‘catastrophic impacts, ultimately including the end of the world, or at least of humanity.’ (The Strategic Shocks section in the 2010 edition was more sober, perhaps because a real strategic shock had occurred in the intervening years.)

  18. Marlowe Johnson says:

    You should check out the other references i mentioned.  You might find them helpful.
    as to you’re question “What happens, for instance, if we attempt to adopt the IPCC recommendations and we fail?”.  what happens is covered in WG2 (i.e. impacts and adaptation), albeit not at the scale that most planners  find particularly useful…

  19. JamesG says:

    Did anyone in military intelligence predict the Berlin wall coming down – ie something that they were actually supposed to know about?
    Well I predict this whole episode will end with the satellite temperatures continuously failing to rise and perhaps even falling – and then of course the we’ll all get angst-ridden about something else. I hope we do get a green energy revolution in the meantime but I fear all we’ll get is massive scamming from carbon traders like Stern, Gore, Goldman Sachs and a large percentage of the current establishments worst alarmists.
    Likely the coming massive correction will stop the rise of CO2 in the West anyway, making it even more irrelevent because the Bric countries represent all global growth for the foreseeable future. So if in doubt, just ask the Chinese what the policy will be because that’s exactly what the actual policy will be. Of course that shouldn’t stop any of the holier-than-thou’s from doing their absolute utmost to reduce their personal carbon footprint to the bare minimum. Ah now there’s the rub..

  20. E O'Connor says:

    JamesG, actually, there was an Australian diplomat who predicted the collapse of the USSR.  He was not believed so bet a case of champagne on it.
    This and the global financial crisis if 2008 are examples of wild cards in future scenario studies.
    This Air University site has links to papers on future studies by US military and Intelligence organisations,  Think Tanks and other non government bodies.
    See  “Climate change and its Implications through 2020”  June 2004 and “The Importance of ‘Wild Card’ Scenarios”.

  21. Eli Rabett says:

    As they say out west, whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.
    You might take a look at the recent dust ups btw India and Pakistan on daming the Indus

  22. JamesG says:

    E O’Connor
    I’d disagree about the financial crisis being a wildcard. There were plently of people predicting it – it’s just that they never got on TV and were called “Dr Doom” or similar. The wise knew what was coming – which shows a) just how little the sheeple care to listen to wisdom and b) in a world of groupthinkers, the minority view can very easily be the correct one.

  23. E O'Connor says:

    Ok, we can quibble about how many constitutes plenty but we are in complete agreement on your statement, “……in a world of groupthinkers, the minority view can very easily be the correct one”.

  24. Pascvaks says:

    An appeal to reason… I doubt that it will catch on.  Too much of the ‘debate’ todate has been controlled by the extreme right and left, so to speak, and the mass in the middle have been ignoring them.  We assume that, similiar to the DOD planners, other departments and agencies have undertaken such reasoned reviews and developed their own contingency plans, and their current policies are reflect reason too.  But, I’m beginning to doubt this is true.  I, for one, feel we’re trending too far toward the “World Solution” and as a result we’re placing ourselves at greater risk.  I have no faith in the UN or allies or friends.  Nations act in their own best interest.  That’s the ‘Game of Nations’.  Whenever some Dreamer thinks that they can be made to act in the interest of all, there’s going to be trouble.   Especially for the Dreamer(s).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *