Managing Climate Risks in the Global Context:  Why Adaptation Matters for National Security

Presented by: Rear Admiral Jonathan White, Oceanographer of the Navy

Rear Admiral Jonathan White

Rear Admiral Jonathan White

Jonathan White was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in August 2012 and became Director of Task Force Climate Change and the Navy Deputy to NOAA. White began his talk with a quip that he was excited to come down from DC for this event, as he rarely gets to talk to lawyers for free. In talking about the Navy’s long running inquiry into climate change, he listed three primary issues that they are focused on: 1) the Arctic, in terms of maritime responsibility; 2) the role of the Navy in coastal policy, noting that Navy bases are very vulnerable; and 3) global security. “Everything going on with climate change has to do with water,” he noted, listing the acidification of oceans, increasing droughts, and flooding in the Himalayas that is occurring for the first time as different facets of this aquatic problem. He pointed to the role drought played in the conflict in Syria as an example of the risk to global security posed by these environmental issues.

However, White cautioned that we have to be careful not to say that any specific weather event (Sandy, etc.) is caused by climate change. The overall trend, however, cannot be denied and we have seen about a threefold increase in these types of events in the past 20 years. He said that higher ups in the military recognize this, even if they aren’t openly talking about it and pointed to Admiral Samuel Locklear’s statement in March, 2013 as an example of publicly espousing the widely held viewpoint.

White then discussed the “4 Ps” of responding to climate change: Predict, Partner, Prepare, and Publicize. On the topic of prepare he stressed that we need to get away from being reactive in response to climate change events and instead should be working towards avoidance. He also discussed the dual sides of ‘publicize.’ On the one hand we have a number of differently modeled prediction curves that we can’t prepare for if the information isn’t properly publicized, however it can also be risky to do so, because insurance rates increase and people can’t sell their homes. Another facet of climate change that we need to prepare for is that we are near having a polar sea route for a time during the summer. According to White, this has huge implications. He is fearful that the risk of a pollution event is huge and stressed that it is much harder to clean up after such an incident in the Arctic than it is in the Gulf. On this topic, he also noted that Russia recently submitted a bid to substantially extend their territorial claims in the Arctic.

In closing, White made it clear that the legislative check writers are going to have to confront climate change more directly and approve money for initiatives if the Navy and others are going to have a chance at successfully confronting it. He also warned of the risks of geoengineering, mentioning a plan that was once proposed about nuking hurricanes to break them apart. A more recent geoengineering proposal that he is fearful of is the use of stratospheric sulfate aerosols to reflect some of the sun’s energy. White thinks this could have a good chance of leading to an ice age. Tying everything back to the legal setting of the symposium, he noted that there is no legal framework to deal with the possibility of one country deciding to try a geoengineering project without approval from the rest of the world.

Some of White’s most interesting statements came up in his responses to questions. Of particular interest to local attendees of the symposium, White somewhat tentatively mentioned that the federal government is in the early stages of looking for a location for a pilot project to bring local and federal actors together to confront climate change. He thinks that Hampton Roads offers a unique setting for this kind of project based on how many players are in this area and was hopeful that it has good chances of being selected. He agreed with an audience comment that there needs be more cooperation and information sharing amongst the many branches of government working on climate change. He thinks things are getting better, but that there is still a good ways to go. He also agreed that members of the military need to start using their credibility to convince members of Congress of the threat of climate change more, but in his view there are really only two things that will convince them: more emergencies like Katrina/Sandy or in the long term, voter influence.

Blog Post By: Toren Elsen

Follow us on Facebook!