“Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” reads a draft of the Third National Climate Assessment, published for public review by the U.S. Global Change Research Program on Friday.
The draft study is unequivocal about the state of climate change: it is already affecting Americans and it is primarily driven by human activity. According to an excerpt from the study’s executive summary:
Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.
The congressionally mandated study – a result of the Global Change Research Act of 1990 – is intended to provide policymakers with a better understanding of the impact of climate change on U.S interests – from human health and biodiversity to energy production and transportation. The assessment is required every four years, but in practice has been more ad hoc. (This assessment is the third one since the 1990 act was passed by congress.)
The study also provides useful insights to national security and foreign policy practitioners charged with navigating the changing global climate landscape and making sense of the impact on U.S. interests. While the study explores areas for mitigating climate change – that is, reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are adding to climate change – it also emphasizes adaptation to changes that are already locked in as a result of decades of emissions increases. According to the study, “Proactively preparing for climate change can reduce impacts, while also facilitating a more rapid and efficient response to changes as they happen.”
The draft study is worth a closer examination than we can provide here on the blog. Read the full report here.
Natural resource and environmental issues have gained more attention from the national security and foreign policy communities in recent years– from concerns related to the U.S. rare earth supply chain to opportunities that might accrue from America’s growing abundance of natural gas. Which ones might get pressing attention in 2013? Here’s a list of the top U.S. policy trends I’ll be watching in 2013, in no particular order.
The National Intelligence Council (NIC) published its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds on Monday, a quadrennial analysis of the major trends shaping the global security environment. The report is intended to provide a framework for a new presidential administration to think about the threats and opportunities that lie ahead in the future security landscape.
The report examined four medgatrends that analysts believe will shape the world of tomorrow: individual empowerment; diffusion of power; demographic patterns; and the food, water, energy nexus.
The latter two trends directly affect each other. According to the NIC’s analysis, “Demand for these [food, water and energy] resources will grow substantially owing to an increase in the global population [demographics].”
Climate change is inextricably linked to the growing food, water and energy nexus. According to the report:
Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so. Much of the decline in precipitation will occur in the Middle East and northern Africa as well as western Central Asia, southern Europe, southern Africa, and the US Southwest.
We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future. Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside.
Technology will play an interesting role in the future security landscape, particularly when it comes to energy, according to the NIC’s analysis. Technological breakthroughs in unconventional natural gas and oil production are contributing to an energy revolution in North America.
New climate data published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Sunday show that global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2011 and could increase in 2012 without a concerted international effort to reduce emissions. According to the analysis published by the study’s authors, the prospect for keeping global warming below 2 ⁰C – the threshold above which scientists expect irreversible climate change to take effect – is increasingly dim. “A shift to a 2 °C pathway requires immediate significant and sustained global mitigation, with a probable reliance on net negative emissions in the longer term,” the authors concluded.
The climate data were released as international delegates meet for four final days of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of Parties 18 in Doha, Qatar. According to a report from The New York Times on Monday, those negotiations are not expected to result in meaningful international progress: “Their agenda is modest this year, with no new emissions targets and little progress expected on a protocol that is supposed to be concluded in 2015 and take effect in 2020.”
The executive secretary of the UNFCC Christiana Figueres said in an interview that countries need to do more at the domestic level in order to build momentum toward a comprehensive global agreement. “We won’t get an international agreement until enough domestic legislation and action are in place to begin to have an effect,” Figueres said in an interview, according to The New York Times. “Governments have to find ways in which action on the ground can be accelerated and taken to a higher level, because that is absolutely needed.”
Annie Snider of Greenwire confirmed on Monday that after more than three years the CIA has closed its Center for Climate Change and National Security, the office responsible for the intelligence agency’s analysis of the national security implications of climate change.
According to the report, the center was closed due to continuing pressure from congressional representatives and dwindling internal support for the work. “Especially since Panetta left, there wasn't a lot of love for this at the CIA," one former defense official told Greenwire.
“The exact timing of the closure and the reasons behind it are not clear. Those close to the center speculate that the move may have been intended to pre-empt cuts from Congress. The total U.S. intelligence budget has declined for the past two years, dipping to $75.4 billion for fiscal 2012 after peaking at $80.1 billion in fiscal 2010,” Greenwire reported.
Nevertheless, the agency has a continued stake in assessing the impact of climate change on U.S. national security interests and will continue the work “under other auspices,” the report said.
On Sunday, the World Bank released a study – Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4⁰C Warmer World Must Be Avoided – that says the world is on a path to increase the average global temperature by 4⁰C by end of the century– that is double what scientists say is safe in order to avoid the most catastrophic climate-related events.
“The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people,” the World Bank described in a press released on Sunday.
“A 4 degree warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2 degrees,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim stated in a press release. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”
Sea-level rise is among the many consequences described in the report. According to the study’s climate projections, .5 meter to 1 meter sea-level rise is likely by 2100, with higher levels in specific regions. Present-day sea-level dynamic topography could put developing countries in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast and East Asia at most risk, areas that already experience above-average sea level rise. While there is no definitive link “between present-day dynamic topography and the future sea-level rise under climate warming,” those regions are experiencing greater coastal and urban migrations, which could make them more vulnerable to future sea-level rise. “Highly vulnerable cities are to be found in Mozambique, Madagascar, Mexico, Venezuela, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam,” the study found.
Tonight is the third and final presidential debate, and it will focus exclusively on foreign policy. Viewers can expect to see significant attention given to Afghanistan, China, Iran and Libya. CNAS published a “National Security Guide to the 2012 Presidential Election” earlier this month that lays out some of the key decision points on a range of issues, such as the defense budget, cyber security and Afghanistan.
One issue that has received very little attention in the debates so far is climate change, which is disappointing when one considers that some of the most important decisions regarding U.S. policy on climate change will need to be made in the next administration in order to avoid potential climate tipping points that scientists say could “lead to increasingly rapid and irreversible destruction of the global environment.” Indeed, the International Energy Agency has already warned that – even with the recent global recession – global carbon emissions continue to rise, pushing the world closer to irreversible damage to the environment. The IEA added last year that unless serious efforts are taken in the next five years to curb global greenhouse gas emissions the world may be unable to avoid “dangerous climate change” and its attendant consequences, including more frequent and severe drought like the kind witnessed today in the American midwest.
But policymakers don’t need to wait five years or more to see how climate change may take its toll on U.S. security and foreign policy interests. One need only look to the Arctic – which recorded record low sea ice this summer – to see where climate change is already complicating U.S. foreign policy. The opening of the Arctic is placing increased pressure on U.S. policymakers to assess U.S. interests in the region and to navigate potential international challenges that could manifest from increased activity in the High North.
Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech at Georgetown University on “Energy Diplomacy in the 21st Century” where she outlined three pillars of America’s energy foreign policy strategy: energy diplomacy; energy transformation; and energy poverty. (See the details of those three pillars at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources.)
In her speech, Secretary Clinton made explicit ties between energy and climate change:
“[E]nergy is essential to how we will power our economy and manage our environment in the 21st century,” Secretary Clinton said. “We therefore have an interest in promoting new technologies and sources of energy – especially including renewables – to reduce pollution, to diversify the global energy supply, to create jobs, and to address the very real threat of climate change.”
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers a speech on “Energy Diplomacy in the 21st Century” at Georgetown University on October 18, 2012. Courtesy of the U.S. State Department.
Higher average temperatures in the United States continue to take a toll on U.S. energy infrastructure, raising concerns about the impact of long-term climate trends and U.S. energy security.
In June, the journal Nature Climate Change published a study that found that energy production from thermoelectric power plants (such as nuclear power stations) could become increasingly constrained as a result of climate change, largely from higher average temperatures warming rivers and other water resources that these facilities rely on for cooling. “During recent warm, dry summers in 2003, 2006 and 2009 several thermoelectric power plants in Europe were forced to reduce production, because of restricted availability of cooling water,” the study found. “In the US a similar event in 2007–2008 caused several power plants to reduce production, or shut down for several days owing to a lack of surface water for cooling and environmental restrictions on thermal discharges.”
That trend is continuing, according to a recent report in The New York Times. On Monday, the Times reported that a nuclear reactor at the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Connecticut was shut down because that water in Long Island Sound was too warm to cool one of the reactors. “Under the reactor’s safety rules, the cooling water can be no higher than 75 degrees. On Sunday afternoon, the water’s temperature soared to 76.7 degrees, prompting the operator, Dominion Power, to order the shutdown of the 880-megawatt reactor,” according to the report.
From food production to electricity generation, the recent spate of extreme weather is taking a toll on U.S. infrastructure, affecting communities on the home front and countries abroad.
The United States is in the midst of the worst drought since 1956, according to the National Climatic Data Center. According to the center, 55 percent of the United States is experiencing some form of moderate to extreme drought, which is expected to continue for much of the year and is already affecting corn, soybean and other agricultural harvests. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that U.S. consumers could expect to pay 3 to 4 percent more for groceries next year as a result of agricultural decline.
The U.S. agricultural forecast could be particularly damming for global food prices and countries that rely heavily on agricultural imports. America is still considered the world’s breadbasket, and agricultural decline in the United States may lead to price spikes in countries abroad, particularly in developing countries that rely increasingly on agricultural imports, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This could worsen food trends (e.g. famine and malnutrition) in these countries as families are forced to spend a higher percentage of their income on groceries, and may, in some places, exacerbate existing social grievances and provoke violence.