I put this in the category of “things that really surprised me that should not have surprised me in the least.” A major theme at the gathering I attended in Jordan was the wide gulf between policy makers and the academic/science community on all things natural security.
As you are purchasing reading material for the Thanksgiving holiday next week, I recommend you all pick up the current Foreign Policy and give its natural security-esque articles a read. Here are the highlights.
On Monday, we mentioned the successful conference on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Japan through last week. While I haven’t yet had time to read the details of the new Nagoya Protocol, it is worth highlighting an important foreign policy aspect of the conference: It was a big win for Japan, a long-standing and critical U.S. ally. In an editorial, The Asahi Shimbun sounded off with well-earned pride: “Agreement has been reached on the second major environmental treaty bearing the name of a Japanese city.” (See this article for a tight summary of what the conference accomplished, as well.)
Also last week, in what’s sure to be an important step in sculpting a renewed partnership with Japan, our fellow CNASers Patrick, Abe, and Dan released a report appropriately titled “Renewal: Revitalizing the U.S.-Japan Alliance.” This report follows on collaboration between CNAS and the Tokyo Foundation, which culminated last week in the release of a joint statement on the future of the alliance.
We had a hand in the natural security section, which outlines areas ripe for cooperation, which I thought I’d post here in light of Japan’s environmental negotiations success:
With two of the world’s leading science establishments, the United States and Japan acting in concert have a unique capacity to create a “green alliance” that addresses environmental and natural resource challenges. Together, Washington and Tokyo should address their dependence on scarce or insecure natural resources. This means above all reducing reliance on oil. The two allies can cooperate on advanced biofuels, energy storage technologies and infrastructure, including smart grid adoption. U.S. and Japanese companies have merged or established relationships that extend to wind, solar, nuclear and other non-petroleum energy sources. Both governments should supplement the private sector’s ongoing efforts by emphasizing cooperation to design demonstration projects for critical emerging technologies that are ready for testing and evaluation.
Last week, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released its findings from a national study aptly titled Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change. The study assessed Americans’ understanding of the global climate system – from the causes, consequences to potential solutions. Shockingly, if the respondents had been given a letter grade (graded on a straight scale), 52 percent of them would have received an F, “indicating that relatively few Americans have an in-depth understanding of climate change,” according to the study’s authors. Meanwhile, only 1 percent would have received an A, 7 percent a B, 15 percent a C and 25 percent a D.
Okay, I’ll admit that I’m personally not that shocked. As the authors of the report noted, “Most people don’t need to know about climate change in their daily life, thus it is not surprising that they have devoted little effort to learning these details.” Nevertheless, I think the authors capture an important point about what the study reveals about climate change and U.S. public policy:
Nonetheless, many of these questions reveal important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that climate change is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about this issue in a democratic society. (Emphasis added)
Now that last point is particularly important. While most Americans don’t necessarily make public policy decisions themselves – indeed, in most cases elected representatives are the ones making the decisions – it is difficult to hold public policymakers accountable if we don’t understand the issues they’re adjudicating. Clearer communication and improved knowledge can lead to better and informed decision making – that was the premise of a study we published here in April, Lost in Translation: Navigating the Gap Between Climate Science and National Security Policy. And indeed, I think the premise holds true across the board. I would argue that if Americans better understood climate change, public policymakers would be more receptive to giving it the attention it deserves. But as it were, that’s not the case. Indeed, political inaction on climate change could be linked to the fact that, as the study concluded, 45 percent of Americans say they are not very (26 percent) or not at all worried (19 percent) about climate change.
In case you have not been following along, it’s been a week of discussions on energy security – from the Naval Energy Forum to the Pentagon’s Energy Security Event, “Empowering Defense through Energy Security,” which included a conversation with the Army and the Air Force, as well.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen spoke yesterday at the Pentagon’s Energy Security Event, describing energy security as an enduring challenge for the U.S. military and the nation. His remarks are excellent and are worth reading in full here. But here are the big takeaways:
Simply put, we can’t think about energy after we get there … wherever “there” may be. Energy security needs to be one of the first things we think about … before we deploy another soldier … before we build another ship or plane … and before we buy or fill another rucksack. And the demand for energy is not going to ease anytime soon.
Rather than look at energy as a commodity or a means to an end, we need to see it as an integral part of a system … a system that recognizes the linkages between consumption and our ability to pursue enduring interests. When we find reliable and renewable sources of energy, we will see benefit to our infrastructure, our environment, our bottom line … and I believe most of all … our people.
This effort is not merely altruistic; it is essential. Failing to secure, develop and employ new sources of energy … or improving how we use legacy energy systems … creates a strategic vulnerability, and if left unaddressed, could threaten national security.
Later today, Erin will relay to you the highlights and her thoughts on the "bloggers roundtable" that DOD Live is hosting at 2pm today. Marking DOD's week o'energy events, they are hosting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and the Environment Katherine Hammack. According to the website, "Hammack will discuss Army energy security as well as policy and oversight of sustainability initiatives and resource management including design, military construction, operations and maintenance."
It's going to be a hoot. Seriously, we should expect Army to bring its A game to this, as they are in a stiff competition with the Navy Energy Forum at the Reagan building today (at which I am expecting some kind of announcement, building on last year's rollout of Sec. Mabus's energy strategy).
But this reminds me: we have not yet formally introduced Erin, your newest natural security blogger. You may have seen here on the blog last week, or at events around town. Erin Alexander is not at all intimidating. She has a brand new J.D. from Georgetown Law, where she delved into UNCLOS, climate change and environmental law. This builds on her BA and Master's in nuclear engineering from MIT and Penn State, her 5 years in the Navy (she continues to serve as a reservist), and a legal internship at ARPA-E. In other words, Erin rocks, and we are thrilled to have her as part of the natural security CNAS family until she begins her AAAS fellowship on the Hill next year. Everyone, welcome Erin! And check back late this afternoon for her wrap-up of A/S Hammack's remarks.
How soon should an industry (or even a single factory) be allowed to return to normal operations after a toxic spill? It's a question of balancing economic and environmental interests. The United States has struggled with this question for months and now Hungary will face it too.
Red toxic sludge poured from an aluminum factory’s containment pond in Hungary on Monday. The sludge flowed through villages, sweeping cars off roads and destroying bridges and homes. Four people died and well over a hundred were injured – many experiencing severe burns and eye irritation from the heavy metals in the sludge. Villagers evacuated from their homes are afraid to return because no one can assure them it is safe. Yesterday morning Reuters reported that the sludge had reached the Danube. The Hungarian government declared a state of emergency in three counties and shut down the factory. The cause of the spill is unknown, although human error is suspected. The president of the company is reported to have asked the Hungarian government to restart operations this weekend.
If the aluminum factory accident had occurred in the United States, would the plant be allowed to start up this weekend? Doubtful. If the BP oil spill is any indication, the plant would not restart this weekend or any time soon.
After the BP spill, the U.S. government placed a six month moratorium on oil drilling. Although officially the moratorium is limited to deepwater drilling, it is a de facto moratorium on all drilling – the Department of Interior has not issued a new permit for shallow or deepwater drilling since the spill.
The moratorium is set to expire on November 30th, but the Obama Administration is under intense pressure to lift it earlier. Industry is pleading that thousands of jobs will disappear if the moratorium isn’t lifted and (just as importantly) permits aren’t issued soon. The Congressional delegation from the southern states is echoing their cries. More neutral parties have also. The President’s own oil spill commission also criticized the moratorium, identifying the prolonged moratorium as “a significant factor in the economic harm” to the Gulf region.
A Wall Street Journal article last week reported that the ban may be lifted earlier, but not before new (possibly very costly) safety rules are in place. Industry will also be required to show an improved ability to contain any future spills. "I recognize that there will always be risks associated with deep-water drilling," Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said [last] Thursday. "We will only lift the moratorium when I as secretary of the Interior am comfortable that we have significantly reduced those risks."
Governments must balance competing environmental and economic interests every day, but in the wake of a toxic spill, what’s at stake is magnified. We’ll have to wait and see how Hungary responds...
“Everything is unprecedented if you don’t read history,” said James Rodger Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, at an event yesterday at the Wilson Center. With an increasing amount of attention given to geoengineering, Fleming has set out on a challenging but laudable task: bringing the history of geoengineering (yes, there’s a history there) to bear on public policy discussions. That’s no easy feat. But the time for mobilizing that perspective is now.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that the recent focus on geoengineering is in part a response to a growing consciousness in the policy community of the challenge of global climate change. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin summed it up rather nicely: “It's come to this: Climate-conscious policymakers are beginning to contemplate the possibility of playing God with the weather in the hope of slowing global warming.”
But what lessons can we learn from our having dabbled in geoengineering before? What is it we need to know before we start “playing God with the weather” in a serious effort to address climate change? These are important questions and were at the heart of Fleming’s discussion – and his book.
Here’s a story near and dear to our hearts at the Natural Security blog: an important report from The Washington Post this weekend shed light on the decline in U.S. Earth-monitoring capability, which is essential to tracking changes in the global climate and understanding the potential security implications of climate change. “I would say our ability to observe the Earth from space is at grave risk of dying from neglect,” Christopher Field, Director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, told the Post’s Suzanne Bohan. According to Bohan:
When Stanford climate scientist Christopher Field looks at visual feeds from a satellite monitoring deforestation in the Amazon basin, he sees images streaked with white lines devoid of data. The satellite, Landsat 7, is broken. And it's emblematic of the nation's battered satellite environmental monitoring program. The bad news: It's only going to get worse, unless the federal agencies criticized for their poor management of the satellite systems over the past decade stage a fast turnaround. Many, however, view that prospect as a long shot. (Emphasis added)
Citing an April 2010 General Accountability Office report (GAO), Bohan highlighted cuts to the next generation Earth-observing satellites, including the elimination of key instruments that are necessary to sustain important climate-monitoring capability:
Gone is a sensor that would relay new data about the atmosphere and environmental conditions in the ocean and along coastal areas. The movement of pollutants and greenhouse gases would have been under the instrument's mechanical gaze, as well. Also absent is a critical sensor that monitors temperature changes over time on Earth.