BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

CLIMATE CATASTROPHE AND SECURITY

October 28, 2021 Dana Lewis Season 4 Episode 10
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
CLIMATE CATASTROPHE AND SECURITY
Show Notes Transcript

On this Back Story as the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow is expected to fail to deliver real climate temperature targets to save the planet. The looming climate catastrophe changes the discussion in security circles as Intelligence agencies and even armies have to anticipate unrest and disruption and even war over climate issues.

Environmental disasters will pit nations against nations, and a lack of water and food, and record heat and flooding will be THE security challenge of the century.

Back Story host Dana Lewis interviews Erin Sikorsky, the Director at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington. 

Speaker 1:

You absolutely need to cut emissions because of the security implications, not just the human security, but the national security implications in the second half of the century are catastrophic for every country around the globe. It's not just the global south, but it's us in , in the global north as well.

Speaker 2:

Hi everyone. And welcome to another edition of backstory. I'm Dana Lewis on this backstory, our planet and the climate emergency and how that's now shaping security discussions, because the insecurity brought about by climate catastrophes, mounting numbers of them from fires to floods, famine, and drought will pit nation against nation over food and water shortages and change the political landscape as the climate changes, our environmental landscape, reshaping rivers and forests, and more so cop 26 is the climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland next week. And it's doomed to fail. You'll hear a lot about different temperature goals in the conversation over climate, but the goal of not allowing the planet to warm more than 1.5 degrees is this. It is right about that point. That scientists project we'll see some climate impacts we already see today begin to go from bad to outright terrifying. It's where we'll likely see many natural systems that begin to cross dangerous points of no return triggering lasting changes and transforming life. As we know it, when we talk about 1.5 degrees of warming, we're talking about the increase in the Earth's average temperature, and they measure this increase from a baseline average temperature in the mid to late 19th century. When the industrial revolution swung into high gear and people began to burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented level jump-starting climate change. But once we cross the 1.5 degrees warming line, as someone else wrote, the four horsemen of the apocalypse Polish off their martinis, look at each other and say, it's go time going from 1.5 degrees of global warming to two degrees could mean 1.7 billion. More people experienced severe heat waves. At least once every five years seas rise on average, another 10 centimeters. There are about four inches up to several hundred million. More people become exposed to climate related risks and poverty. The coral reefs that support Marine environments around the world could decline as much as 99% global fishery catches could decline by another 1.5 million tons going above 1.5 degrees of warming puts millions more at

Speaker 3:

Risk of potentially life-threatening heat waves and poverty. It all, but wipes out the coral Reese that entire ecosystems rely on worldwide sea swallow, even more of our cities. And that's just for starters, as you're about to hear from this week's guest, Aaron Sikorsky climate is just not another security question. It is the security issue of this century and it forms the backbone to all other discussions about future conflict. Aaron should know she was a deputy director of the strategic futures group on the national intelligence council in the U S and as spent a decade or more in the intelligence field. All right , Erin Sikorsky is the director of the center for climate and security in Washington higher . And great to talk to you.

Speaker 1:

Hi, thanks for having me. Would

Speaker 3:

You agree that we're on the threshold? Uh , we're at the tipping point towards climate catastrophe?

Speaker 1:

I think if we don't act soon. Absolutely.

Speaker 3:

So you're in Washington where climate change continues to be politicized and where there is a huge amount of climate denial. I mean, bring us up to date kind of on your take on where America is, because a lot of people looking to the U S to be a leader in dealing with climate change, but there's a lot of division politically over whether there even is global warming on the Republican side.

Speaker 1:

Sure. Although I'll say there was a new poll that was just released this week of the American public and a large majority of Americans do agree that that climate change is real and that it's a concern and they're seeing it in their backyard, frankly, all over the country , uh , more and more every day. And I think the debate in Congress right now is showing that there's been a shift over the past few years of a debate between is climate real or not to , okay, what do we do about it, which is a healthier debate to have. And when you bring the national security lens to the conversation, there's actually even more agreement. And there has been bipartisan action on climate security over the past few years. So from my perspective, I think that's a good place to continue to push this issue with, with both Republicans and Democrats , uh, because it, it absolutely poses a national security threat and threatens American lives.

Speaker 3:

It seems to me that in Europe, the discussion is more advanced in , in that Europeans, absolutely believe that climate change is taking place. It's a threat to the planet and they are in the street. I mean, some of the protests even today , um, around London on , on the [inaudible] one of the biggest transportation rings here, protesters are up blocking traffic and traffic backed up for hours. So, I mean, so it's much more proactive here

Speaker 1:

That activism in, in the U S as well, I believe in New York city , uh, earlier this week, they blocked one of the bridges going into the city. Uh, so there, there is activism. And I do think also that the, the Biden administration has really put climate change front and center into its foreign policy. Uh, and you just saw last week , uh, the release of a bunch of new reports about why climate change is such a critical security issue for the United States. So I think there is, there absolutely is movement here as well. Um, and

Speaker 3:

Yeah , the conversation despite, I mean, it's, you said last week, and then this week we have another UN report, which says that the promised cuts in emissions are not yet enough to stay under the dangerous threshold of global heating that would trigger a severe climate breakdown. This like right on the Eve of cop 26, the climate conference is going to take place in Glasgow. Um, it seems week by week, we're having these startling reports. Uh, and yet we don't seem to see that translate into real significant political action, because if it's not significant, if it's, if it's, you know, two and a half degrees versus one and a half, that can be the difference between, you know , melting ice sheets all over the world and in a global catastrophe.

Speaker 1:

No, you're absolutely right. That we're in a, in an urgent moment. And , uh , the work that we have done at the center for climate insecurity has, has attempted to show right, that you absolutely need to cut emissions because of the security implications, not just the human security, but the, the national security implications in the second half of the century are catastrophic for every country around the globe. It's not just the global south, but it's us in , in the global north as well. And so we've absolutely been pushing that, that work in that message. I think at the same time, there's a recognition that even if you cut all emissions tomorrow, there are baked in changes to the climate that are also going to pose security threats in the more near term. And we have to manage those as well.

Speaker 3:

Let's talk about the climate security risks, cause that's your specialty, right? And forgive me for, for walking into that a bit slowly, but I wanted to understand, and , you know, as an American and how you feel that , that the us is approaching the debate, but in October , um, I see that you spoke to president Biden's council of advisors on science and technology, climate security risks. And I think the most striking thing that I saw from watching that I wish, you know, as a journalist, I've always wanted to be a fly on the wall and some of those discussions and because of YouTube, I got to watch all of that. So thank you for putting that up. And I thought it was really interesting that you, if I can take away the main point for me from that discussion, and we can walk through it a bit, is that you no longer say, yeah , yeah, yeah. There's a lot of different security things you have to at around the world in term of risks and climate is one of them. And your point is climate is all of them. And it just is, it has to be the main backdrop going forward for all of those security risks conversations for any country.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, absolutely. That climate change is shaping the national security landscape. Right. And so anything that a country cares about in terms of security and for the United States, whether that's China or the threat from terrorism or the risk of conflict in parts of the world that we care about. I mean, whatever it is, climate change is going to play a role. And so that's why it's so important that the national security community can bring that climate lens to the discussion and understand the role climate change plays. Because if you don't, you're going to miss things. And I think China is a, is a key example of that. If you don't understand right, that China itself will face climate security risks with rising sea levels along its coast, where it has millions of people desertification in some of its agricultural lands, you know, the changing patterns of fishing stocks due to warming oceans , uh, extreme weather events, which we're seeing right now in parts of the country where , uh , they produce energy. If you don't understand that on the us side and how that shapes Chinese, decision-making how that shapes Chinese foreign policy and behavior. You're not going to get the questions right about competing with China. And so I think

Speaker 3:

The point, even in the United States about how even in the last year, and you can give me a couple of examples of how the us military has been directly impacted in terms of training deployment it's military basis by climate.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, absolutely. So the military us military bases on the Gulf coast have sustained billions of dollars of damage due to strengthen hurricanes because of climate change, or you look at California. And the wildfires there in recent years have forced the evacuation of military bases have curtailed training days because of poor air quality, as well as, you know, troops being diverted to help fight fires in California and not train for other missions. And so all of that poses, a security risk to the U S as well, and is one that I would argue that in that , that case, I think the defense department is, is , uh, recognizes that risk and threat and has developed a climate adaptation plan, which they released a few weeks ago to address some of those risks. But as we were discussing earlier, adaptation only gets you so far, right. Uh, adaptation only gets you so far and you really need to also be able to walk and chew gum and focus on mitigation as well.

Speaker 3:

So give me some examples in your kind of scope of studies where you think that future conflicts will revolve around some of the issues of climate change, whether it be migration, flood, famine , uh , lack of water fires, I guess all of those.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. I mean, honestly you can, you can take the globe and , and spin it and put your finger down and you can probably describe a climate security risk going forward. But a few places I'm, I'm particularly concerned about , uh, one is , uh, of course the , the middle east and the Lavant where you have rising temperatures, you have , uh, concerns about water in, in rivers there that are shared between countries. And you look at what happened this summer in Iran and Iraq and Lebanon where protesters hit the streets because in part due to climate change, right , uh, drought and temperature rise , uh, combining with poor governance and corruption and mismanagement of natural resources led to water shortages to energy shortages. And so I think it's that layering right effect of climate shocks on top of already challenging issues that could spark further conflict. I'm also worried about , uh, south Asia and the shared river basins between India and China and India and Pakistan. And as you know, those rivers , uh, shared rivers start up in the Himalayan basin in China and as climate change reshapes the water flow of those rivers. But you also have Chinese dam building, you have low trust relationships between all those three countries who are all nuclear armed. Right. Um, I think there's real

Speaker 3:

Points by the way.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Yeah. I think it's a really combustible mix and without , uh , better data sharing or ways of communicating between the countries about the rivers and, and, and the shared , uh, shared basins there, I think that's, that's a potential flashpoint that I'm, I'm worried about as well.

Speaker 3:

The interesting point on a Turkey and Algeria that in cases where you had unrest from climate , um, in fact, they pointed the finger in different directions to divert blame away from climate management to something else.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think you're going to see more of this as states are strained, right. By the response to climate change. So in Turkey and Algeria, you have the wildfires this summer and in Turkey, you had the government blaming the Kurds for the fires and Algeria. You had the government blaming a quote unquote terrorist groups from Israel and Morocco. And I think you'll that the operating in an era of distant misinformation as well , uh, online, I think that just adds, again, I can use a terrible metaphor, a fuel to the fire, right. And, and can create more instability intention. And these shocks, as we know from the science are going to come more frequently and more intensely than ever before. And states that are already suffering due to COVID issues or other, other challenges just, just won't be able to meet it. Another example there, I would point to is actually in Greece this summer, and this wasn't the government, but it was misinformation circulating online that the fires there were started by Afghan refugees. And so you have this mix then of the migration issue and climate issues and governance issues all coming together in a, in a dangerous way.

Speaker 3:

And you also have talked about, you know, when you were asked about risk of response, which I thought was quite interesting, because if you, you have to respond to climate global warming, but there are risks , uh, in how you do so, because if you suddenly cut off goal coal and gas and oil prices, collapsed states that rely on fossil fuels suddenly become very unstable.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, exactly. I mean, you need to think through right. The energy transition and , and what some of those risks are there. I think the good news is we have, we can use predictive capabilities and pre-planning to get ahead of some of those risks. Right. Um, but, but they're important to think about, and even in countries that don't rely on fossil fuels, but maybe raising gas prices can be a real challenge. Like we saw in France with the yellow vest movement a few years ago, right. There's a potential for internal turmoil and instability. I also still think there are risks around you engineering, for example, and that is a response. And if countries or individuals take unilateral action , um , obviously the international , uh , system for managing geoengineering or setting up rules of the road really lags where the sciences. And so I think that's an area of concern as well, and it would, it would be good for the international community to get ahead of that. That was actually in the , one of the documents released by the Biden administration last week was a national intelligence estimate from the , uh , intelligence community on the risks of climate change. And geoengineering was a key piece in that document.

Speaker 3:

People don't think that conflict is sparked by something. I wouldn't call it small, but you know, often we think of political uprisings because of, you know, they , they don't like the change of government power corruption, often, all of that exists as the backdrop, but they are sparked by simple things like a bad harvest. And somebody raises the price of bread by a few cents. And that can , that can take people to the street street , same as the lack of water supply.

Speaker 1:

And that's why I think it's so important to think about this as systemic risk, right? That it's, instead of getting caught up in debates about what percentage of the conflict was caused by climate change, for example, you'll sometimes see academics go down that road. I think it's more important to understand how, again, that shaping environment, what is climate doing to the environment in which these actors are operating? How are actors responding? I think you can look at Ethiopia right now is a good example of that. And been in conflict since November of 2020, the proximate cause there was not a climate related issue with COVID political, but when you look at what climate has done to that country over the past 20 years, changing rainfall, higher temperatures, destroying agriculture, obviously the environment is very , uh, lacks resilience. And then when you think about peace-building and managing that, if you don't again, bring that climate lens, you're not going to get the right answers going forward.

Speaker 3:

So you make the point that the claimant lens becomes the factor in terms of future disruption. Um, why is the us intelligence community so hesitant reticent to get involved in climate?

Speaker 1:

I think there's a few different challenges. Some of them are structural, right? Our national security institutions in the U S were set up at a time when states were the primary threat and that's how we focus on things. And so this idea of actor list threats, right, is it's challenging to wrap folks' minds around. I think there has been concern in the intelligence community previously about the polarization on the issue and the politicization. And instead of, you know , taking a stand, they just say, Nope, not our, not our job. We don't do it. Um, and I also doesn't tend to have scientific backgrounds or data rich backgrounds. And so their ability to bring that, that climate understanding to the conversation is, is hard. Um, I think that's changing now and I think the Biden administration has put a priority on, on changing that. Um, but it takes time. And I think one of the challenges has been with his ambitious climate, you know, foreign policy and security plans is the bench in the federal government has been relatively thin of a climate strong national security workforce. But again, I think that's changing and that's some work we're doing to try and try and change that. Cause I think you have to, you have to bridge that , that gap between the scientists and the national security community and make sure they're communicating and working together , um, on this critical issue

Speaker 3:

I'm from Canada. So I like your analogy to a thin bench. I hopefully you referring to hockey, you also talk about , um, in , in addition to risks, there are opportunities, right? Because if the us is able to predict some of the unrest predict some of the climate challenges that countries will face , um, it's also able to intervene , um , and help those countries and help those allies rather than lose them as allies.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. I mean, when you look at a polling of , uh , nations in Southeast Asia, right, and they're asked to the pub public is asked to rank the threats, they're most concerned about climate change rises to the top and almost every country about 10 points ahead of the risk of conflict with other states. And so the United States has a lot of tools we can bring to help those countries manage climate risks and climate security risks. And it can be closer partnerships with militaries on making bases and facilities more resilient. It can be helping with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, which are only going to the demand for those is going to increase , uh , due to climate change. It can be helping with , uh, energy technologies , um, all of these things that the us can bring to the table that those countries really need, I think then can help make sure that they're there with us when other challenges arise, right. If they're too consumed by managing climate risks internally, they're not going to be there when we, when we need them. And so I think that's really important and something we bring to the table

Speaker 3:

As the climate becomes more fragile, it's ripe for exploitation. And th there are issues raised in , um, by , you know, by your organization and others about environmental terrorism. Can you just walk me through that,

Speaker 1:

Sir?

Speaker 3:

And it's by non-state actors, some of it,

Speaker 1:

Yeah. I mean , uh , you know, one area of concern is that violent extremist groups can take advantage of the strain on governments , uh , due to climate for recruitment, right. And for taking action. I think there's also concerns that, you know, us adversaries , um, and it could be, it could be state actors are trying to take advantage in places like the Arctic and elsewhere and operate in the gray zone. Um, if you will, to, to take action and push, I think also to push misinformation to further the political divide in the United States on these issues. Um ,

Speaker 3:

You sounds like you just talked about Russia on two different points.

Speaker 1:

Yes, I did. I did. Um, and so I think, I think that's all, all an area of concern. Um, I think also competing over access to rare earth minerals, right? That things you need for the energy transition, as well as another potential flashpoint . Um, so, so all of these pieces together, but you've seen, especially with violent extremist groups when water issues or food issues come up in countries, they see this with in , uh , Somalia with Al-Shabaab where they try to take advantage and use it to their advantage , uh, and, and try to control territory.

Speaker 3:

So if we, if we can kind of come back to cop 26 , um, are you deeply concerned? Like so many others that they really, I mean, probably are not doomed to fail , uh, but probably fall short of where they need to be. And that further feeds, you know, not , not international security concerns everywhere.

Speaker 1:

I, I think if , if they don't raise ambitions high enough and take strong enough and action , absolutely the international security landscape is affected. I am generally a hopeful person , uh, and I have seen some , um, progress from some countries that I, that makes me , uh, hopeful, but I, but they gotta get it done, right. There's no, there's no time to waste. And I think beyond even just cutting emissions, it's also making sure they're helping the countries that are going to face the brunt of , um , these effects sooner rather than later. And climate finance has to be a key piece of it

Speaker 3:

And the tail, not, not on the tail because we're still in a pandemic, but in the middle of, you know , everybody's struggling economically independently as well. I mean, it's a perfect storm,

Speaker 1:

Right. And, and we , we need to do that on the climate finance, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it has security implications, if we don't right . And for all the reasons we just talked about, if these governments can't manage these challenges, they don't have help in , in building a better resilience. It's going to affect all of us and affect all of us negatively.

Speaker 3:

It is already politicized to the point that you don't have China coming and Russia coming. And if you don't have the big players at the table, where does that leave the discussion? Okay .

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I think, I think it's a challenge. I think the thing I am, I am going to focus on is what those countries actually commit to doing, whether they're at cop or not. And that's, I think that's the big focus. Um, but I think the, the pressure , uh , is building on, on the security front in a way that I frankly would have been surprised to see just a few years ago, the Russian national security strategy that was released this summer mentioned climate change nine times. Um, and so I think in those countries as well, there is a push from the security community to say, look, this is, this represents a risk to us. I don't know if that's going to be enough to push them fast enough and far enough, but I think it , it, it is helping , uh, I hope

Speaker 3:

Aaron Sikorsky the center for climate and security, and then you have a huge background in security issues and , and climate. And it really is a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you. I mean, your time with you is golden and I appreciate it. Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation

Speaker 2:

And that's our backstory on climate insecurity. Cop 26 will fail to get nations to agree, to limit global warming to a reasonable target. We are probably already past the point of no return on climate experts have come to the conclusion. The coming years will be challenging. The second half of this century could be cataclysmic. This is 99.9% of the best scientific minds in consensus over global warming. I won't even mention the dissenters because it's not science and it detracts from what we already know about the climate. And none of it is good. I'm Dana Lewis. Thanks for listening to backstory. And I'll talk to you again soon .

Speaker 4:

[inaudible] .