The Defense Science Board’s new report, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security, is getting some good traction. As I promised in my lengthy post on Tuesday, I’m continuing to mine the report to pull out the most interesting findings and recommendations.
What is interesting (and certainly a welcomed message) is the report’s recommendation to bolster U.S. civilian satellite programs that generate environmental and climate data. According to the authors, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should, “Work with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration [NASA] to conduct a renewed study of options for increasing the availability of low-cost, high-reliability launch vehicles for civil science satellites critical for climate observations.”
The recommendation comes at a time when America’s declining earth monitoring satellite capability is raising concerns that the United States is quickly approaching a capability gap that could hamper our ability to understand near- and long-term changes to the environment, including their implications for U.S. national security. In August, Christine Parthemore and I wrote in Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security that “By 2016, only seven of NASA’s current 13 earth monitoring satellites are expected to be operational, leaving a crucial information gap that will hinder national security planning,” and that losing satellite-based earth monitoring capabilities will affect U.S. national security, given that DOD, USAID, the State Department and others rely on the information generated by those satellites for crucial planning purposes.
Last Thursday, the Defense Science Board (DSB) released its report on climate change and security, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security. The report stems from an April 2010 memo from Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Dr. Ashton Carter (now the Deputy Secretary of Defense) who charged the DSB to create a taskforce to explore current and emerging environmental and climate change trends and their implications for U.S. national security, and to recommend how the Department of Defense should coordinate with other U.S. government agencies to dampen the consequences of climate impacts.
The report focuses largely on climate implications in Africa “due to the vulnerability of African nations with high potential to intersect with United States national interests.” It is worth pointing out as well that there is more data available on the sociopolitical and environmental implications of climate change in Africa than most other regions of the world, most notably because of the work from the University of Texas, Austin’s Climate Change Political Stability Program (CCAPS), which received DOD support through the Minerva initiative – a program that allows DOD to invest in academic institutions to “develop the intellectual capital necessary to meet the challenges of operating in a changing and complex environment.” I point this out because Minerva is one of the programs that congressional appropriators are reviewing, and CCAPS and other research programs supported by Minerva have demonstrated that the initiative does actually provide that intellectual capital that DOD officials are looking for in order to better understand the future security environment.
Starting at 9 a.m. this morning, our friends at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change are hosting an event at the Newseum in Washington, “Toward Climate and Energy Solutions,” featuring former U.S. Senator John Warner, Entergy CEO Wayne Leonard, Resources for the Future President Phil Sharp, moderated by NBC’s Ann Thompson. For those of you unable to join downtown, you can watch the webcast here. (I recommend you tune in.)
The event couldn’t come at a better time. As the economy slowly rebounds, competing priorities for scarce federal and private sector dollars continue to threaten to edge out important opportunities to invest in green energy technologies. The Pew Center event is meant in part to renew the conversation on energy and climate security and develop solutions for mobilizing action and investment to help foster the clean energy sector America needs to make serious progress on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring access to more reliable sources of energy.
And when I say the event couldn’t come at a better time, I mean it. Just this morning, The Wall Street Journal reported that the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a warning yesterday that “Dangerous climate change will be ‘locked in’ within little more than five years and there are few signs that the world will stop this happening.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released the findings from its climate change impacts study on California’s San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta system, Flash Forward 100 Years: Climate Change Scenarios in California’s Bay-Delta.
I mention the report because it is a powerful reminder that while climate change will likely be devastating for communities in vulnerable developing countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives, developed countries like the United States also have much to worry about if we do not begin planning for climate change. According to the USGS study, areas like the Suisun Bay (pictured above) are vulnerable to changes in the climate, with implications for the surrounding communities: “water-resource planners will need to develop adaptation strategies to address potentially longer dry seasons, diminishing snow packs and earlier snowmelt leaving less water for runoff in the summer. The study also describes risk from flooding as sea-level rise accelerates and extreme water levels become increasingly common. Increased intensity and frequency of winter flooding could also occur as a result of earlier snowmelt and a shift from snow to rain.”
California’s San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is tremendously important to the California economy. The impacts of climate change that are likely to manifest there could prove disastrous. “The Delta provides drinking water to 25 million people and irrigation water to farmland producing crops valued at $36 billion per year,” according to the USGS. “Intensive efforts are underway among the USGS, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and the State of California to address what will be increasingly difficult decisions regarding allocations of water for human consumption and biological needs.”
Photo: Suisun Bay, a shallow tidal estuary that forms the entrance to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, as seen during sunrise. Courtesy of Francis Parchaso and the USGS.
Sometime on Monday the world population grew to 7 billion people, according to the United Nations. “Seven billion population is a challenge, and at the same time, an opportunity, depending upon how the international community prepares for that challenge,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference in New York on Monday.
It is interesting to reflect on what a world with 7 billion people means against the backdrop of global climate change. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported on the findings of a draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that cautioned that weather extremes could become worse as the world warms, making disasters like the 2010 Russian heat wave and the ongoing drought in Texas and the American Southwest more the norm than the extreme.
Yet, “global warming isn’t the sole villain in future climate disasters, the climate report says,” according to the Associated Press. “An even bigger problem will be the number of people – especially the poor – who live in harm’s way.”
It is clear that the world is shrinking. But in addition to a growing population, more and more people – especially in developing states – are moving from rural to coastal areas in order to take advantage of burgeoning cities and faster economic growth taking place along the world’s coastline. However, these people are in harm’s way. Indeed, this migration toward the littoral regions is forcing people to live in more dense communities in vulnerable areas that may be more susceptible to severe storms and sea level rise, the kinds of challenges likely to manifest from global climate change.
There was a large spread in The New York Times yesterday on the coming age of unconventional oil and natural gas – that is, oil and natural gas from deepwater reserves, oil sands, shale rock formations and the Arctic. The article is worth reading at length to understand how technology is changing the landscape of available energy resources and what it could mean for heavy energy consuming states, especially in the near term.
“The United States may now have the means to reduce its half century of dependence on the Middle East. China and India may have the means to fuel the development of their growing middle classes. Japan and much of Europe may have the chance to reduce dependence on nuclear power,” The New York Times reported. “And, at least theoretically, poor African countries might be able to lift themselves out of poverty.”
There are important caveats to the above claims, of course. First, one must remember that relieving U.S. dependence on Middle East oil is in large part symbolic more than anything else. Oil is part of a global market where prices are set, and disruptions to the global oil market will affect the price of oil for everyone, everywhere, including oil produced from reserves in North America. Thus, price volatility will continue to be a concern as long as we are largely dependent on fossil fuels. And while The New York Times reports that “new fuels should moderate future price increases,” one must remember several trends too, including that as the global economy recovers and industrial production rebounds in developed and developing states, consumption will quickly increase and prices could also rise sharply if demand outpaces production. Finally, one must remember that continuing to develop fossil fuel resources will, as The New York Times cautions, “probably [make] solutions to climate change, and the development of renewable energy, even more difficult.” These are important externalities to keep in mind.
The decline of Arctic summer sea ice and the opening of passage to commercial travel for at least one month of the year have been pointed to as the silver lining of a dark cloud that has cast a shadow over a world experiencing global climate change. And while it may be true that Arctic ice melt could be a boon to the commercial shippers plying the High North, climate change is likely to pose challenges to the same industry elsewhere.
Experts caution that climate change could disrupt global trade by impacting sea ports in key cities around the world. In September, The New York Times reported that port operators have done little to prepare for such potential climate effects. “Though the impacts of climate change have been extensively studied in other areas, especially in agriculture and for flood zones, up to now there has been little comprehensive investigation into how shipping ports will be affected,” The New York Times reported.
But the slow call to action is worrying given the cities likely to be disrupted by climate change, specifically by sea level rise. A new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the majority of cities most vulnerable to economic disruption from climate change lie in developed countries, with American cities like Miami, the greater New York area (New York and Newark), New Orleans and other bustling international hubs like Tokyo ranking among the top 15 most vulnerable. Developing countries are also exposed, with quickly emerging economic hubs like Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangkok and Guangzhou, China extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.
These trends are quite unsettling when one considers that nearly 80 percent of global trade is done by sea. “With hundreds of ports tied to one another in often intricate and complex trade links, even a temporary disruption to one far-flung port facility can have wide-ranging implications on all global trade if there are no suitable alternative ports nearby,” according to The New York Times. With global climate mitigation efforts potentially stalled in the near term (we’ll find out for sure in Durban), port operators and the authorities governing them will likely need to invest in climate adaptation programs to hedge against these kinds of potential disruptions.
The UN Conference on Trade and Development held a meeting September 29-30 with experts to discuss the potential impacts of climate change on existing ports and port development in some of these key cities, and how to adapt to the changing environment. (A number of presentations made at the meeting are available online.)
Last week we revisited the geoengineering debate in light of the recent Bipartisan Policy Center’s report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change through climate remediation – that is, by engineering the climate. In particular, we emphasized the need to understand the foreign policy dilemmas that are likely to arise from engineering the global climate. This week we turn to the technical feasibility of actually doing it.
Later today Dr. Tim Persons, the Government Accountability Office’s Chief Scientist and author of the latest report, Climate Engineering: Technical Status, Future Directions, and Potential Responses, will discuss the future of climate engineering technologies at an event at the Wilson Center. Several of the GAO report’s findings are worth highlighting in advance of that discussion though. According to the report:
Climate engineering technologies are not now an option for addressing global climate change, given our assessment of their maturity, potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences. Experts told us that gaps in collecting and modeling climate data, identified in government and scientific reports, are likely to limit progress in future climate engineering research.
The report evaluated the most and least advanced options for engineering the climate. “To assess the current state of climate engineering technology, we rated each technology for its maturity on a scale of 1 to 9, using technology readiness levels (TRL)—a standard tool for assessing the readiness of emerging technologies before full-fledged production or incorporation into an existing technology or system,” the report stated. Any technology with a TRL score below 6 is considered immature by technical standards and “may face challenges with respect to potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences.”
The geoengineering debate is front and center in Washington again. Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change by researching and testing options for “climate remediation” – which is the report’s term of art in lieu of geoengineering; “to mean intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.” The report is based on the findings of an 18-member panel convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center in March 2010.
The debate comes as momentum for any political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through national legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill, and is likely to remain stalled through 2013 given the approaching presidential election season. According to The New York Times, several of the panel members that authored the report “hoped that the mere discussion of such drastic steps [that is, to engineer the climate] would jolt the public and policy makers into meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which they called the highest priority.”
“Managing risk is a central principle of effective climate policy,” the report states. “This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate changes). Most climate remediation concepts proposed to date involve some combination of risks, financial costs, physical limitations, or a combination of the three that make the concepts inappropriate to pursue except as complementary or emergency measures—for example, if the climate system reaches a ‘tipping point’ and swift remedial action is required. The United States needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change.”
I was riding my bike on Ohio Drive near West Potomac Park on Sunday and saw the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon, which reminded me that DOE just published its first Quadrennial Technology Review. The what, you ask? Yes, you’re reading that right: Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR).
“During this time of hard budget choices and fiscal challenge, we must ensure that our work is impactful and efficient,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu writes in the opening message of the review. “The question we face is: ‘How should the Department choose among the many technically viable activities it could pursue?’ This first Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), launched at the recommendation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, lays out the principles I believe must guide these difficult choices.”
What’s notable about the review, according to Secretary Chu, is that it provides a framework for multi-year investments. This is critical in helping viable technologies scale up by providing a sustained demand signal from DOE that may give the private sector some added comfort in making capital investments in technology. “Energy investments are multi-year, multi-decade investments,” Secretary Chu acknowledges. “Given this time horizon, we need to take a longer view.”
The review provides a pretty solid primer on the energy landscape and the challenges that the United States faces. “An effective U.S. portfolio of technologies and policies to address these challenges must be based on three global realities,” the review states. These realities include: the choices that we make today about long-term infrastructure (i.e., the efficiency of buildings, etc.) will shape global energy consumption through the end of the century; to stabilize global carbon dioxide emissions (“the dominant anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas]”) in the long-term, energy technologies will have to be greener in the near-term given that the greenhouse gases emitted today impact the world tomorrow; and as global oil consumption increases, future crude prices and price volatility will increase sharply as the world depletes access to “easy” crude oil (i.e., cheaper and easier to access onshore resources).