Climate Risk and National Security: People Not Polar Bears

Climate Risk and National Security: People Not Polar Bears


Rear Admiral David Titley, Retired US Navy, Ph,D. spoke April 6, 2018 in Appleton on his experience with climate science. His talk was titled, “Climate Risk and National Security: People Not Polar Bears”. He has a unique perspective on the issue of climate change. The title of his presentation refers to widespread sympathy felt when marketers explain climate change by showing polar bears stranded on minor ice flows, seemingly starving into extinction. He describes climate change as a social science problem, not a physical science problem. After all, he says, the science was proven 120 years ago by French, Irish, and Scottish scientists and mathematicians.

For those who want to “argue” the science or any fact related to climate change, it really comes down to fear. They fear three things: “all the jobs will go to China”, “I don’t want the government to tell me what to do”, and “gas will be so expensive I won’t be able to drive my truck”. Sound familiar? As in all fears, there is a grain of truth.

Being a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Titley had lots of charts, graphs and data to elaborate his main points. Historically, the earth’s weather has experienced 450,000 years of variability followed by 8,000 years of stability up to current day. This lengthy period of stability enabled humans to build civilization as we know it: ports on the coastlines, trade, and manufacturing. Now, we are moving away from climate stability. Greenhouse gases are changing the climate quickly. And this brings us face to face with a paradox. The earth, as huge as it is, is very sensitive to minor changes. As the seas rise, weaker and weaker storms will do greater and greater damage.

Dr. Titley provides political and military examples to illustrate. Diego de Garcia is the name of an atoll (a small coral island) in the ocean southwest of India. It has an elevation of five feet above sea level. It is owned by England but it is a strategic US military base with extensive space radar capabilities. The Department of Defense didn’t plan on rising sea levels, but the effects will certainly handicap a billion dollar effort on this tiny island. All at taxpayers’ expense. Other naval stations will fare similar problems when rising sea levels impact infrastructure. The world’s largest naval base is Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and it serves many parts of the world. When power, water, and sanitation sewers are damaged or nonfunctioning, it will have far reaching consequences.

Many countries, especially Russia and China are interested in the Arctic ice. Photos show how much “multi-year ice” has disappeared. When major ice melts in the Arctic, China can shorten their shipping routes and cut eighteen days off their shipping travel time, saving lots of money. China wants Arctic sea ports. Russia builds Arctic air defense systems.

Dr. Titley then directs our thoughts to disaster relief in weather damaged areas. The US provides humanitarian assistance but at a great expense when using high value military jets and other equipment. The more the military provides this assistance he asks us to consider what they are not doing in terms of capacity, readiness and new missions.

All of this leads to security threats due to climate change events. He points out that climate change was a factor in the Syrian war. Syria suffered 2 major droughts from 1988-1993 and from 1998-2000. The Assad regime began in 1970 when the father of the current President became President of Syria ruling with brutal force. In 2001 the Khabur River began to dry up. In 2003 the Iraq war began. Wheat crops failed and formerly self-sufficient wheat farmers became destitute, abandoned their farms and migrated to urban centers. The desperation of many becomes fuel to conflict and makes bad situations worse. Simply put: failing state, take away water, and the result is catastrophe. Economic, political and humanitarian catastrophes become a security risk for US policy and military. Dr. Titley emphasizes climate change was a factor in – not the cause of – the Syrian civil war.

Dr Titley had so much to say it is difficult to summarize. He ended on many positive notes, mainly that it’s not too late to mitigate climate change. He feels the “too late” mindset is a copout. “We’re not where we need to be but we’re far from hopeless. We don’t usually do anything until it’s a crisis. When we get our act together we kick butt.” He cites many institutions bringing elements of society together on the issue such as religious entities from the Catholic Church to Buddhists, the insurance industry, the health industry, the military. He instructed the audience to remember what each of us can do individually: LLMA, or Learn, Local action, Monitor, and Advocacy.

Learn by reading as much as you can on the science and mitigation recommendations. A good source is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) publication “What We Know”. It can be downloaded by searching AAAS what we know in your computer. Check for a link on our League website soon. As far as dealing with the nay-sayers who deny climate change, Dr. Titley mentioned the book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman titled, “Thinking Fast and Slow” published in 2011. It is a work of considerable research into the psychology of judgement and decision making, intuition and bias and it explains why we don’t get it, in case you’re in for a good read. He reminds us that science doesn’t change anyone’s mind as it is very difficult to change our “tribal affiliation”.

Advocate for climate change policy through local action, and advocacy. He recommends asking your politicians “What are you doing to stabilize the environment?” and notes that if you care, they will care. He states as a reminder that “Congress will not lead but they can be led”.

With those words and more, he inspired all in attendance.

Written by:

Barb Dorzweiler

Recommended Reading: What We Know

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