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Is climate change really a national security issue, in the same way we think about terrorism or nuclear weapons? And if so, what are our governments doing about it? In this episode of TILclimate (Today I Learned: Climate), national security expert Alice C. Hill joins host Laur Hesse Fisher to help answer these questions.
Judge Alice C. Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Her work at CFR focuses on the risks, consequences, and responses associated with climate change. Hill previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff where she led the development of the first ever climate adaptation plans for the Department of Homeland Security Task Force.
For more episodes of TILclimate by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, visit tilclimate.mit.edu. To receive notifications about new episodes, sign up for our mailing list and follow us on Twitter @tilclimate.
DISCLAIMER: [00:00:00] Hi everyone, so before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this is going to be maybe a heavier episode. If you’re not in the headspace for it, maybe come back to it another time.
LHF: [00:00:11] Hi, this is Laur Hesse Fisher, and you’re listening to Today I Learned: Climate, the show where you learn about climate change from real scientists and experts. Today, we’re building on a conversation that started in our last episode with Professor James Renwick about sea level rise. You might remember that, toward the end of our conversation, Prof. Renwick said this:
JR: [00:00:37] For a country, say like Vietnam or Bangladesh, and even parts of China, we're talking millions of people, maybe tens of millions of people being displaced by sea-level rise. The kind of political tensions and national security issues that might come with some of this are what’s really worrying.
LHF: [00:00:58] We wanted to know more about this -- is climate change really a national security issue, in the same way we think about terrorism or nuclear weapons? And if so, what are our governments doing about this?
We found out that here in the U.S., our national security leaders are very concerned about climate change. Here’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in April 2021:
LA: [00:01:24] We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential. The climate crisis does deserve to be called existential. Rising sea levels and more frequent intense storms put individual families and whole communities at risk, while pushing the limits of our collective capacity to respond.
LHF: [00:01:54] To better understand what officials like Defense Secretary Austin are thinking, we reached out to an expert in U.S. national security.
AH: [00:02:02] I'm Alice Hill. I am the David M Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, I served in the White House for President Barack Obama as Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council. And before that, I had a career as a judge in Los Angeles.
LHF: [00:02:25] Judge Hill started her time in government at the Department of Homeland Security, also called DHS. DHS was formed after 9/11, and is responsible for American’s public security -- so things like customs and immigration, and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to national disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.
AH: [00:02:48] President Obama signed an executive order, ordering all agencies, including DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, to engage in climate adaptation planning for the first time. Well, there weren't many, this is 2009, at the Department of Homeland Security who wanted to pin their careers to the issue of climate change. So, I was the new person who had arrived at the department. And as I remember it, we're sitting around the table, the senior leadership, and someone says, “Oh, give it to her. She's new.”
I assembled a task force from across the sprawling agency, And we asked the question: in 2009, does DHS need to worry about climate change? We spoke with scientists, policymakers, and quickly concluded: Yes. DHS needs to worry deeply about climate change.
LHF: [00:03:44] Judge Hill shared with us that there are three kinds of security risks we’re going to face in a warming world. The first is that more people and communities are going to be hit by climate impacts.
AH: [00:03:56] And you can see that just in how we choose to build our homes and where we live. The fastest growing land use form in the lower 48 of the states is building in the middle of the forest, or right next to grasslands with increasing wildfire risk. Those homes are at great risk of incineration, but more people are moving into those areas, not aware of what they're facing. Very similar on the Eastern seaboard. People are moving into flood zones, because they want to live next to the water. But they don't realize that rapidly we're going to have bigger storms and more sea level rise, which will flood their homes.
LHF: [00:04:39] And as more of these things happen, more communities will find themselves without help.
AH: [00:04:45] Sadly, the pandemic has given us great insight in how this can unfold. We had never in the United States really planned to have a disaster in 50 states and six territories at once. So, it introduced to us this idea that we could have multiple events draining our ability to respond. If we don't have backups, the next community that's hit may be out of luck.
LHF: [00:05:16] This brings us to our second kind of security threat. As we discussed in our episodes on sea level rise, a disaster can force people to need to find somewhere else to live, temporarily or permanently.
AH: [00:05:30] Estimates are that 24 million people are internally displaced today, every year, worldwide, because of worsening natural hazards.
Here in the United States, we have displacement when a big storm comes and homes are flooded, say after Katrina, a diaspora of people from New Orleans. Similarly, in California, after Paradise was wiped out by fire. That town essentially moved in a few hours to a neighboring town. And that town welcomed them, initially. But once it becomes real that new homes are needed, there was already a question of affordable housing. The kindergarten is going to have more students than they ever planned for. The roads are more crowded. There's some adjustment that needs to happen. And if you look across the globe and that's happening, that's putting pressure on communities.
LHF: [00:06:25] Now imagine disasters like this have been happening, one after another, for years.
AH: [00:06:32] In fact, you're seeing that in our southern border right here in the United States. We've had this challenge with increased numbers of Central Americans from what's known as the Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
LHF: [00:06:50] This region is still dealing with the after-effects of some terrible civil wars that lasted into the 1990s—and which the U.S. was involved in. That’s left a legacy of poverty and violence that some people are desperate to escape. And climate change has made that bad situation worse.
AH: [00:07:11] If you peel back the facts, they've also had very severe climate impacts. A drought that decimated their crops, a coffee fungus that flourishes in changed conditions that wiped out coffee bushes, flooding—and that just happened with two back-to-back hurricanes. And now many who don't even have a place to live are heading north, to find better conditions.
LHF: [00:07:39] And here, we’re getting at the third kind of security risk posed by climate change.
AH: [00:07:44] These events can be de-stabilizing for governments. If the government is ill-prepared or doesn't respond in a way that inspires trust in the people that the government is ostensibly helping, it can drive them into the arms of bad actors.
We saw this with the pandemic! We saw that cartels were taking advantage, for example, of the Mexican government's inability to provide basic necessities to the population. We saw the Taliban using it as a recruitment means. We see corrupt individuals—the Mafia in Italy using this as a moment to expand its influence as well as recruits.
LHF: [00:08:30] For people who worry about our national security, this is the kind of threat they’ve always worried about. Terrorism, organized crime, violent groups vying for control of governments—all have more room to grow when times are hard. The good news here is that U.S. military and intelligence agencies know they need to deal with these threats.
AH: [00:08:51] Pretty universally with climate change, it's recognized that there is a need for extensive planning, so that people can understand that they can't just peg everything to what they've experienced in the past.
That's probably the most difficult lesson for anyone to learn because we've all grown up with the assumption that the future can be guided by the past.
So we need to have our scientists give the very best science to the intelligence agencies. And then you can use those tools to help engage in what they call scenario planning.
And I'll give you an example of that. Norfolk, which is one of the crown jewels, certainly of the U.S. military, it’s one of the largest, if not the largest Naval port in the world. But that area is suffering from a rapid rate of sea level rise. So, if you do a scenario, which says: Let's imagine we're in Norfolk, Virginia, and the seas rise two feet. Let's look at a map and see where that water could go. And then you think, okay, well that means this base is flooded and that base is flooded. And these people can't get here. How would that change our planning? What should we build now to have a better future?
Then you move on to the strategic concerns, and that's where we're looking at what could happen in the world that would impact United States’ security. And that could be a flood, um, a devastating spread of a disease that's worsened by climate change. And then of course there's scenarios considering, if this leader fails, if he's pushed out of office, if there's a coup what could happen and imagining all these things. So, we're as ready as possible.
LHF: [00:10:44] And Judge Hill sees this as a place where the State Department plays a critical role -- the State Department deals with things like providing foreign aid and negotiating with other countries. In other words, preventing conflicts, so that the military doesn’t have to get involved.
AH: [00:11:00] Climate change requires us to much, much deeper develop investments in development overseas, as well as diplomacy. Helping countries thrive so that their populations don't want to leave. You need to invest in their ability to survive and succeed in a warming world.
And the way you do that is through working on increasing aid to those countries, as well as helping them diplomatically. If we address the problem up front, we can reduce the threats to us externally and have this not escalate into a conflict, but rather an area where we can enjoy global stability.
So, it's time we get busy and work hard to understand what the risks are and how we can shore them up and make sure that those choices at least are based on the latest science and what the threats are anticipated to be.
LHF: [00:12:14] That’s the end of our episode. But if you want to learn more about climate and national security—and there’s plenty more to learn—we’re leaving some links in our show notes. We’d also love to hear your questions and feedback. You can write to us at email@example.com, or reach us on Twitter; our handle is @tilclimate.
Thank you to Judge Hill for joining us, and thank you for listening
- For more about Hill and her work, visit: https://www.cfr.org/expert/alice-c-hill
- Take a look at Flood Factor — a free, online tool that makes it easy to learn if a property has flooded from major events in the past, is currently at risk, and how that risk changes over time.
- In this episode, we included a clip [0:29 – 0:42 and 1:47 – 2:01] of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III’s speech at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Read the entire speech here.
- In this episode, we listed a number of federal agencies that are involved with domestic and international affairs. Below, you can find links to their “about” pages:
- In 2009, former President Obama signed an Executive Order ordering all agencies to engage in climate adaptation planning for the first time. Here you can read the Executive Order.
- While the United States did not “plan” to have a disaster in 50 states and six territories at once, while in office, former President Obama put into place a pandemic response plan.
- Judge Hill said, “Estimates are that 24 million people are internally displaced today, every year, worldwide, because of worsening natural hazards.” When citing this figure, Judge Hill referenced this NPR article.
- For data on how many people have been displaced between 2008 and 2020, visit: https://www.internal-displacement.org/database/displacement-data
- For an overview of climate change, check out our climate primer: Climate Science and Climate Risk (by Prof. Kerry Emanuel and the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative).
- Our educator guides that go along with each of our episodes make it easier to teach climate change, earth science, and energy topics in the classroom. Take a look at our newest educator guide on national security.
- For more episodes of TILclimate by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, visit tilclimate.mit.edu.
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Changes to the climate have had and will have dramatic effects on natural disasters, mass movement, and government stability. The ability of governments, organizations, and leaders to plan for, adapt to, and prevent natural disasters will shape the future.
In this set of activities, high school students model changes in climate and their effects on international relations, investigate local climate impacts and solutions, and observe global climate patterns and adaptations. Lessons may be standalone or done in series.