Alice Hill discusses the intersection of climate change and national security, including an assessment of the growing threats to U.S. national security from climate fueled extreme weather events and the U.S policy response to date.
The CFR Master Class Series is a weekly 45-minute session hosted by Vice President and Deputy Director for Studies Shannon O’Neil in which a CFR fellow will take a step back from the news and discuss the fundamentals essential to understanding a given country, region of the world, or issue pertaining to U.S. foreign policy or international relations.
O’NEIL: Great. Thanks so much, Laura. Thank you all for coming. Good afternoon and welcome.
For those of you who joined us last week, welcome back. We’re glad to have you with us. For those who are joining for the first time, welcome to our new series, CFR Master Class. And this is something we’re going to be doing every week on Tuesdays from 4:45—or 4 to 4:45. So welcome this week and hope you can join us in the weeks to come. And the idea here at CFR is to really, here, get beyond the headlines; to go back and to deep dive into a particular country or a region or, in the case that we have today, into a particular issue with one of the senior fellows and with your fellow CFR members.
So today, to take on an issue, we have Alice Hill. Alice Hill is the senior fellow for climate change policy here at the Council on Foreign Relations. You have her bio and many of you know her well, but she spent many years in the U.S. government—in the Department of Homeland Security and the White House—thinking about these issues, thinking about U.S. resilience in the face of climate change and other natural catastrophes.
Just to note, there’s about to be a huge thunderstorm where I am, so hopefully that won’t be a catastrophe for this. But you may hear some thunder behind me.
She was in government, as I said. She’s the author of a great book that came out last year called Building a Resilient Tomorrow. And she also spends a lot of time, in addition to CFR, advising. She’s on the board of nonprofits. She advises other groups, really thinking about both for the United States and globally how we deal with this issue of resilience in the face of the climate changes that are to come. So we have no better professor today to kick us off in this Master Class that will look at national security and climate-change issues.
So I am going to turn it over to her for eight or ten minutes to set the stage, and then I will open it up to all of your questions, the member. So please, Alice, go ahead.
HILL: Oh. Well, thank you, Shannon. Thank you for that kind introduction. I’m really delighted to have a chance to talk to you today about national security and climate change.
I have to admit that this topic is puzzling to some at times, including to those in the military. I remember a policy friend of mine who told me about her experience. She had expounded on the threats posed by climate change to national security, and afterwards a soldier came up to her and said: I understand what you’re saying, ma’am, but my job is to defend or take the hill. Who should I shoot? And with climate change, it’s not really about traditional military force; it’s about a much broader definition of national security that threatens, really, global security and human security.
But if you just take that narrow definition of national security, really defending the United States against attack and keeping the nation safe with the military, even the military is threatened by climate change. You can just look at a series of events in recent years. In 2019, the Missouri River washed over Offutt Air Force Base. And then, a year earlier, Hurricane Michael swept over Tyndall Air Force Base. And the same year, Hurricane Florence pummeled the Marine Corps base camp at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The total bill for that was about $10 billion. And of course, just like the federal government, the Department of Defense self-insures, so essentially that’s taxpayer dollars.
It also affects training. It gets too hot for healthy young women to—and men to train. And it gets—affects our ability to respond to humanitarian missions. But if you open the aperture to look at what does climate change mean for global security and human security—access to freshwater and fresh food—the threat becomes even more visible.
The Earth is heating up. The years from 2000 to 2018 were the hottest on record. Now, we’ve been keeping records since the late 1800s, but we know—1880s—we know that the temperatures have changed. There’s no dispute about that. May was the hottest May on record. In the Arctic this week, north of the Arctic Circle, we had a town that experienced 100 degrees Fahrenheit in heat. That’s unprecedented.
So this heat that we’re experiencing as a result of accumulation of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution—but they—it takes a while to heat up, and we’re now really experiencing that heat. That heat brings very dramatic events. And with attribution science we can tell—we can do the forensics to know that these events either were largely caused by climate change or certainly that climate change contributed to them. So we’re seeing bigger wildfires. We’re seeing more intense storms, storms intensifying very quickly over warmer waters. Greater heat extremes. So even though we’ve—you have average global temperature increases of about 1.6 to 1.7 degrees Celsius so far, we know that we see these spikes of extreme heat, and extreme heat is one of the biggest killers that we have to humans. We also see greater extremes in precipitation. Those are those rain bombs that you may have heard of. Think of Hurricane Harvey dropping sixty inches of rain on pancake-flat Houston in just four days. And of course, sea-level rise.
So these events are dispersed around the globe, but there are some sections of the globe—it’s kind of a global lottery, and some sections of the globe will be affected much more severely than others. But everywhere will be affected, and it will have dramatic impacts.
And this isn’t something for the far-off future. We’re already experiencing them now. If you just look since January, during COVID, a look at the country of India. They’ve had a typhoon on the west coast, along with Bangladesh hit simultaneously; three million people evacuated. Then they had a typhoon on the east coast. Then they had an extreme-heat event in Delhi where they saw record temperatures. And now they have a locust invasion, as we’re seeing in parts of Africa, that can just gobble up a field in a matter of hours. So these are all climate-exacerbated events and they have impacts on global stability.
In October 2016, the U.S. National Intelligence Council—which is the de facto think tank of the U.S. intelligence agencies—made public a report concluding that, and I quote, “climate change and its resulting effects are likely to pose wide-ranging national security challenges for the United States and other countries over the next twenty years.” So we’re already five years, almost, into that. They identified six pathways across which this could occur: threats to the stability of countries, heightened social and political tensions among different peoples, adverse effect on food prices and availability, increased risks to human health, negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness, and—the big unknown—potential climate discontinuities and secondary surprises. We really—the science hasn’t kept up with what we’re—the changes we’re seeing in the atmosphere already, and we may see very dramatic changes all of a sudden that would, of course, have great impacts if we saw a rapid rise of sea level.
So I want to just unpack two of these for you today, but I’m happy to talk about any of them. And of course, I’m sure there are others that could be considered as well. But it can destabilize countries. And I think the way we can see this is what we can see with COVID.
You know, during a time of great crisis, countries are stressed to respond to the crises. And if they don’t do an adequate job, or they are just overwhelmed because they get hit with clusters or concurrent extreme events—which we know will occur—the governments will struggle to respond, and that can undermine their ability or their authority—undermine their ability to govern. So we see, like we do with COVID, insurgents, criminal organizations, terrorists taking advantage. So in Mexico we have Chapo Guzman’s daughters preparing boxes of sanitizers and masks on behalf of the cartels and calling them “Chapo boxes” to help with the population’s needs during the pandemic. Similar efforts by the mafia in Italy. Boko Haram and Taliban are also reportedly helping local populations. This allows these groups to expand their influence, to recruit members. And it provides them opportunities to gain territory that they might not otherwise have.
The other issue that has gained a little bit more traction lately is the implications for investments in economic competitiveness. Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock famously, right before COVID really became widely known, said that climate risk equals investment risk. And that is true. We have a lot of underlying risk that simply has not been exposed. So like we have operational risk to our military bases, we have operational risk to companies all over the world—from flooding, from wildfires, you name it, extreme heat events.
We also know that our global supply chains, as we learned from COVID, are very fragile to these types of events. So we saw flooding in Thailand in 2011 that had a material impact on the ability to manufacture automobiles because a single part was manufactured in the surrounding areas of Bangkok and simply were unavailable.
And we also see that it can affect our energy supplies. California, the sixth-largest economy in the world, their solution to climate change threats from wildfires was to shut down major portions of the energy grid because they simply couldn’t protect against—they weren’t resilient yet to these worsening impacts. So as we see this, there’ll be devaluation of assets. There’s been recent reporting about mortgages—them mortgages that are being packaged are not reflecting the growing risk. That within the life of a thirty-year mortgage you could see that home become soggy and people abandon it because it’s simply unlivable.
So as I look at these things, I can tell you right now that our efforts to address climate change and national security are nascent at best. And that’s pretty much across the globe. We’re still trying to understand the problem. We do not have good vulnerability assessments yet that really can tell us what regions are at most risk, what’s going to happen to populations on the move when they get displaced. We just don’t know this information yet. And it’s a huge gap. And of course, the security risks are continuing to grow.
So with that, I’d like to throw it open to questions about really anything. It’s a very broad issue, even though on its surface it may sound rather narrow, because you must remember that climate change affects all systems—economic, financial, military, you name it. And all of those systems rest on a fundamentally flawed assumption with climate change. And that assumption is that the climate that we’ve experienced in the past is a safe guide to what we will experience in the future. We are heading to having impacts, extremes that we have never seen. And the last extreme—this is very hard for humans to recognize—will not be the worst extreme. We’ll just see the extremes worsening over time.
So we need to get ready and we need to understand what that—the risks posed to our national security in the conventional sense, and also in the much broader sense of human security and global security.
O’NEIL: Great. Thank you. Alice.
Laura, do you want to just tell us again how people put their name in the queue if they have a question?
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Alan McGowan.
Q: Hi. This is Alan McGowan. I am in environmental studies at the New School and an executive editor of Environment magazine.
I’ve been involved in this in a long time. Do you think that framing this as a national security issue will get the attention of the body politic that some of us have been asking for quite some time, and actually try to get some things done?
HILL: I used to think that. I don’t anymore. I think that this is a very polarized issue. And so some Republicans who push back on climate change do not appreciate the tie to national security. And I’ve actually seen it in my discussions with military personnel. So I think it’s a very important issue, but I don’t think it’s a hook to get people to care.
The hook that I think is—has emerged in polling in the past, and that certainly with COVID is resonating, is the—are the health consequences. And I didn’t really talk about those, but increased disease and although we haven’t drawn directly a tie to COVID we know that because a population and desertification and other things—populations are moving to live in and be closer to animals, which increases the risk of zoonotic disease. And then, of course, we’re seeing vectors change of tick-borne and mosquito-borne diseases really threatening populations. And then on top of that, of course, we have all the respiratory issues, from wildfires, and then the water-borne diseases during flooding.
So health is a huge issue. And just as our health system wasn’t prepared for COVID, it is not prepared for climate impacts of the type that I’ve been discussing. Almost none of our facilities, and we saw this very vividly during Sandy, are resilient to the type of impacts that we can anticipate they will continue to suffer in the foreseeable future.
O’NEIL: Alice, can I just ask and add onto that, this idea of, you know, is there a hook. Do you see the U.S. government and others reacting in a kind of when something happens, when a base gets flooded? Is there ever a never again moment where you see this momentum and this motivation? Or have we just not reached the big enough never again moment for the U.S. government to really take this on?
HILL: So, interestingly, when it comes to military bases the never again moment, in my interpretation, has largely come from Congress. Congress has, in the National Defense Reauthorization Act, the one bill that we know will be passed every year, has continually inserted climate change there, and sometimes that it’s a national security risk. But it’s pushed on DOD to make sure that their facilities are resilient. And it’s required additional studies, additional plans. So Congress has told the military to look at it from that angle.
One of the challenges of finding a never more moment or—in climate change, is that these impacts, unlike COVID which affects everyone at once globally, they come in in a localized way, in a regional way, and may impact just in a way that doesn’t feel like it affects me or anyone in my family, or anyone that we need to care about right now. So we just can’t seem to use that as a hook to get people involved. And then, of course, the politicization of this issue has meant that many both inside the military and outside simply have not viewed this as a career enhancer, to get involved in climate change or climate change and national security. Actually, I credit my ability to be involved by the fact that so many weren’t interested in tying their careers to an issue as politicized as climate change.
O’NEIL: Thanks. Laura, let’s go to the next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Ellen Laipson.
Q: Thank you very much.
Alice, I wondered if you could tell us your kind of preferred architecture for global cooperation. So in the national security world we have alliances. But alliances aren’t always countries that have the same sort of vulnerability to climate change. They may vary. I remember Sherri Goodman back in the ’90s was adding environmental issues in security cooperation that the U.S. military would hold with, you know, less developed countries, et cetera, that environmental issues were kind of emerging as a source of security cooperation, if you will. But you’ve mentioned health. We’ve got, you know, the Paris agreement. And then we’ve got all these security relationships. Where would you put climate and security—where should decisions be made, or cooperation be promoted? Maybe it’s all of the above, but I’d welcome your thoughts on that. Thanks.
HILL: Well, building resilience to national security and climate change require focus on defense capabilities. It also requires focus on development because we very much want to help the populations that are so deeply affected, and do not have the economic means to deal with this. So that requires development and diplomacy. And that would be our allies. Of course, the United States under the current administration has not really been a part to these discussions. We’ve pulled out of the Paris agreement and, I should say, anyone who works on the side of preparing for the impacts of climate change believes deeply that we must cut our emissions to avoid the unmanageable risks that are ahead if we don’t cut our emissions very dramatically now.
But we see in other countries really a growing emphasis on making sure that climate is part of the package as we go forward. And that includes Germany, including it in its stimulus package, requirements—(audio break)—required company—(audio break)—from the Canadian government during COVID to disclose their climate risk. And next month, in July, Germany will co-chair the U.N. Security Council with France. Germany is not a permanent member. But it plans to raise, again, this is an issue that’s occasionally come before the U.N. Security Council, the issue of climate change and security.
So you see a growing effort from countries outside, particularly Europe, and interest in making progress in finding answers to global security. I think it’s got to be a global governance of some kind. The risk is that we will all turn inward. We’ve seen that from gaming, that when you put experts who—about different countries and regions over time through the games run by CNA, where Sherri Goodman was and has led so much of this work, the players just got tired of seeing these impacts, and then turned inward. It became—they became isolationists. And of course then you have all these populations that don’t have the means to weather these events. And as we’ve seen, these are opportunities for bad actors to really take advantage. And then that increases ultimately the risk to the United States.
O’NEIL: Let’s take the next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Franklin Moore.
Q: Thank you. This is Franklin Moore.
I come at this from the development and resilience side, looking particularly at agriculture and wildlife. And as we look at land use and land use change and pandemic threats, there are many of us who look at collapsing ecosystems caused by people migrating, caused by animal migrating. And if you go back to 2005 with H5N1, and we, the United States, did a wonderful effort working with FAO to make sure from that agricultural perspective it was working. That also was true when we faced Ebola and looking at it as a pandemic threat. And beginning to look further at other pandemic threats, many of us would say COVID is one of those pandemic threats that’s zoonotic and may be caused by land use, land use change.
And we look to the future, we expect there will be more and more of these. Could you comment in climate—your climate change and national security from that perspective?
HILL: Well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence offered in 2016, food security will be a major issue with climate change. One of the concerns there is that we have 60 percent of the world’s food baskets are concentrated in six areas. And if we see collapse there, that could be very dire. There are a number of efforts. We need more drought-tolerant seeds. We need more heat-tolerant agricultural practices. We need to look at our land use. Land use is very important for a whole host of reasons to climate change. We need to look at getting aid immediately out to, for example, farmers, as they’re doing in Kenya, with a kind of parametric insurance, where if so many days go without rain they immediately dispense funds to the farmers so that they can survive that, so that they’re not taking desperate measures.
We need to seriously look at food security from the global supply chain aspects, but also just on the ground to avoid really some very serious food insecurity. We know from food insecurity it affects women and girls more dramatically. We see children stunted. We see after an extreme event that the boys generally do fine, but the girls have much worse outcomes. Very important for us to figure out solutions. And there are groups, aid groups, actively working on this.
But it’s not enough, quite frankly, yet. And we will need to look at emergency food supplies. We see two regional groups, one in Africa and one in South Asia, to ensure food security for an extreme shock. We also may see countries—we’ve just recently seen India wanting to stockpile certain food products in case it faces an extreme shock. We need some deep planning on how we’re going to feed the 7.7 billion people that we have on the Earth in the face of just compounding events that destroy infrastructure, destroy land, and really have grim outcomes.
O’NEIL: Alice, can I just follow up on that? I’m interested—so one is sort of stockpiling and direct government involvement, either ours or others. But the other thing it seems like there are broken private markets. So one is regulating—the government is stepping in and trying to incentivize private companies and agriculture producers and the like to do it in a way that might be more resilient. The other is to sort of clean up the mess afterward. Do you see activity on that other side, on trying to rethink how people farm, or what governments could do to incentivize private sector to do this better?
HILL: Right now I see more activity on the emergency response side because nobody wants to get caught short. And long term we see Germany, other aid agencies are engaged. USAID has been also engaged in climate resilient work for a long time. But I don’t think on the long haul these are sufficient. One of the fundamental problems is just the granularity of our information. And you may recall that just last year, you know, we do—let’s take sea level rise. It’s not on agriculture, but sea level rise, it depends on the rise of the water, but it also depends on the elevation of the land. If you’re, you know, high up on a hill it doesn’t—it’s not as serious as if you’re pancake flat, like Bangladesh is.
But it turned out, you know, for most of the developed world, the United States, Australia, we have LIDAR, very sophisticated elevation understanding. So we can determine what our food risk is. For many parts of the world, we can’t. And a small startup, Climate Central, decided they were going to take some of the LIDAR information, some other information, and lay it over what we know about sea level rise. And it turned out that we had grave areas in—errors in Southeast Asia in our understanding of climate risk, to the point where we had identified the tops of trees as the land. And this put hundreds of millions of people at much graver risk of sea level rise than we previously knew.
And of course, those people have to move as the land disappears. And as we’ve just heard, the land use issues, the destabilization for these cities that have to receive them. And these—this is going to happen within this century, these types of changes. And sea level rise is gradual, but the most damaging thing of sea level rise is the storm surge. That’s the wall of water that washes over land and salinates the—makes the agricultural fields nearby unusable. It ruins the fresh water supplies. And that will happen first. And then we’ll see the sea level rise actually eat the land away or erode the land away.
But we don’t have that kind of understanding. We don’t have those vulnerability assessments for some of these countries that are the most threatened. And so it’s really hard to do the type of planning we’re talking about until we really can get our handle on what is the range of risks they can expect in the foreseeable future that will make the choices that will make things better. Of course, we risk making things worse by making some maladaptive choices.
O’NEIL: Great. Let’s take the next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Christine Dawson.
Q: Hello. It’s Christine Dawson with the Department of State.
I was wondering, what can the federal government do to stimulate both public and private investment in resilience in the broadest sense, both at home and abroad? Thank you.
HILL: Well, I can talk deeply about here in the United States. We have a system where right now we—because we’re—the state and local governments control building codes and land use decisions—we have routinely communities building in the most risky areas, because they want to protect their tax base, people want to live next to the water. And then a bad event happens and the federal government—so, think a Sandy, think a Katrina, think of wildfires. The federal government comes in and gives massive amounts of aid after the event.
And because we’ve created this system, we’ve created a moral hazard for the local community leaders, who are mostly elected, to just gamble that they will not require stricter land use provisions, they will not tell people—or not restrict even how they build in flood zones or otherwise. Not as strictly as they need to. And so we are just accumulating risk rapidly right now, and this is our current situation, to the point where the Government Accountability Office has identified since at least 2013, this system that we have for dealing with climate risk in the United States is a high-risk for the Federal Treasury.
So we need to make sure that the federal government incentivizes local governments to do the right thing, to require better land-use practices, to require better building codes—both the codes themselves and the enforcements. And that means that we need to signal to them that we will not use federal taxpayer dollars to build in a risky area in one particular location. We will use federal dollars to support that development if it’s resilient development, if we think that’s a wise gamble. You know, in the 1980s we completely pulled out of the barrier—some barrier islands along the coast of the Atlantic because the federal government said: It’s just too risky to build here. You want to build there? You can go ahead and do that yourself, but you need to foot the bill.
It’s a little harder globally. But I certainly think we should invest in helping people understand their risks, and then helping them understand the benefits of doing things resiliently, and how we can do that in a cost-effective manner.
O’NEIL: Great. Next question, please.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Daniel Benaim.
Q: Thanks so much. Dan Benaim from The Century Foundation.
I had a question about the national security dimension of this debate. And looking at these issues at the intersection of nature and national security in the Middle East, one of the strains of discourse that surfaces is the way that that security frame interacts with the contest for power within the countries, and the way that by treating the debate as a security discussion you may push it into a security lane bureaucratically, have security actors be the ones handling the issue instead of either environmental experts of the folks that you would want the policies to empower. I’m wondering how you think about that critique.
HILL: Well, let me just give you a little background. I came to climate change all of a sudden. I was a former federal prosecutor, and then a state court judge, and then I was invited to join the Obama administration. And I should probably just say, the way I got to the Obama administration to be senior counselor to Secretary Napolitano at that time was, this is my career advice to young people, be nice to those you sit next to in law school. So I sat next to Janet Napolitano, and I she asked me to come to work at the department. And one of the very first assignments I got was based on an executive order that President Obama had issued requiring all federal agencies to plan for climate change.
So I used that as an opportunity to educate the department and myself on what are the risks. And we asked ourselves: Do we need to care, in 2009, about climate impacts? And honestly, everyone who served on that taskforce decided, yes, we need to care deeply. It will impact every mission space that this huge, sprawling department—born out of anti-terrorism—every mission space that department has. But in working on that, it became clear to me that this overarching threat that will affect, as I’ve said, virtually every system that we have—the financial, the energy grid, our water, our wastewater treatment, our infrastructure, how we educate.
It’s going to affect everything. But we treat it in these very siloed ways, which has inhibited action globally. This is replicated across in government bureaucracies across the globe. But we need to figure out a way to step back. And probably we needed to do that with the pandemic—and I did work on biothreats when I was at the White House and DHS so I’m familiar with how that worked. Highly siloed as well. We need to step back and say: What are the threats, these catastrophic risks that can bring the nation to its knees and then have really global implications?
But we don’t do that yet. We don’t have taskforces set up for that. We tried to do that in the Obama administration. Those do not currently exist. So the planning we’re doing is on a very siloed basis. EPA does some in the environmental space. DHS may do some. And then you have states doing their own thing as well. At the end of the day, I am not confident without a national plan, and this is pretty much a gospel among anyone who works in adaptation, that a country can get to the level of preparation that it will need. And that includes understanding the environmental, the ecosystem threats that are involved.
So you’ve identified a huge vulnerability in just how we are organized based on our having fought—we organize ourselves based on fighting the past war. But we really need to understand this new completely changed landscape that is just in front of us and will change rapidly while we’re watching it.
O’NEIL: Mmm hmm. If you—if you could, you know, wave your magic wand, is there some area in the U.S. government you would have lead this taskforce? Where would it come from? Where would—to get this comprehensive plan, where would you start, or where would you put the authority?
HILL: Well, if I were in charge, certainly immediately it needs to be centralized within the White House with a very empowered person who can make sure that we first scrub all of policy in the United States to make sure that we’re on the issue of cutting the emissions, and that we’re also addressing the issues of resilience. So I think that’s an immediate takeaway. But I would ask that group whether in the long term this is going to require the creation of some new agencies, perhaps an overarching agency, but certainly—and my co-author Leo Martinez and I argue that we should consider a Department of Relocation for the numbers of people who will on the move in the United States, so that we’re planning systematically for how those receiver communities can thrive when they receive either a slow trickle of displaced persons or a sudden impact from a wild fire, like we saw in Chico after Paradise burned, or—and also, just we see from the sea level rise, and moving back.
But we need immediately to get organized and also understand the many disincentives we have currently built in legislative frameworks and regulation to achieving climate resilience and to cutting the emissions in the way we need to do. So we need to organize immediately, but then I think we need to step back and say: This risk is so big, so large, it affects everything, that does it merit a reorganization on the level of what we did after World War II, when we created the Department of Defense? And that took a long time for that to work out. Department of—DHS is still working through its growing pains. But this is a risk like humans have never experienced. We are going through an event where atmosphere is changing in ways that we haven’t had. So it might merit really a radical rethinking—transformational thinking in how we plan and prepare.
O’NEIL: Next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Scott Borgerson.
Q: Sorry about that. I’m off mute now, I think. Can you hear me?
O’NEIL: We can. Go ahead, Scott.
Q: All right. Hi, Shannon. And hello, Alice.
Twelve years ago I wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs called “Arctic Meltdown” that said we should have icebreakers. And the White House just came out and said we should, too, last week, which was nice we’ve come around on that one. And one thing I worried about in that piece, and still do, are feedback loops and sort of runaway climate change. So my first question is, are you worried about that? And then the second, brief, question would be: Do you also think on the mitigation side really pricing carbon is the only way to truly sort of tackle this problem? I know it’s complicated and this is really kind of adaptation, national security, resilience perspective. But it does connect in terms of how you price and think about the way the free market works. And you mentioned insurance, for example, and sort of pricing the risk. So how do you think about carbon and pricing? And do you worry about—do you stay up at night about feedback loops?
HILL: Well, let me take the first, pricing on carbon. You know, I’m not deeply invested in any particular solution for cutting carbon. It can be carbon pricing, carbon dividend, whatever you want, but we need to cut our carbon. So I support whatever efforts there could be put in place. So I don’t study that as closely. You raise a very important issue about the Arctic. First of all, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. And we’re seeing permafrost melting infrastructure, causing an oil spill most recently.
And then—but the melting has security implications in that Russia has really exhibited military might in its relationship with the Arctic. It claims that it’s got friendly intentions, but I would say the Nordic neighbors are deeply suspicious of that. And we have, obviously, an ocean opening up that will allow for trade. China has declared itself to be a near-Arctic nation. They’ve put across—freighters across the ocean there to prove that they’re serious about this. And so we have some geopolitical ramifications on who’s going to control the resources, who’s going to control the area. And of course, the United States is not a party to the Law of the Sea. I think it’s just us and Yemen, or maybe a couple of other nations now.
But in addition, the opening of the Arctic Ocean means that we’re seeing that ice disappear. So, obviously, white reflects back heat. But with a black ocean, a dark color, the oceans are absorbing much more heat now. And that increases the heating of the globe. So that albedo effect is very concerning. And then the Arctic—underneath the Arctic are huge reservoirs of methane. And methane is the most damaging of the greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the shortest lived, but it really has an impact on heating. And as we see that Arctic tundra melt, we’re going to see much more methane.
So this is the concern, they said we’re going to get in such dangerous loops now that it really will be difficult to stop the heating. You may have seen reports that scientists now fear that we may be headed to five degrees by 2100—five degrees Celsius. That is an enormous amount of heating across the globe. And if it’s twice as bad in the Arctic, that’s just incredible. So we need to get a hold of this now. It’s not a distant issue. It’s today’s problem, along with dealing with pandemics and other challenges, of course, that we have. Inequality, this will exacerbate that. But we need to get a handle here now.
O’NEIL: Let’s take another question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Charles Dunbar. Ambassador Dunbar please, oh.
This is descending to a much lower altitude, that of bureaucratic organization. Is the DARPA in the Defense Department active in working on problems of the environment and climate? Or has another organization been created that focuses on this in the Defense Department? And while you’re up, please tell me if DARPA still exists. Thank you.
HILL: I believe DARPA still exists. I was not aware of DARPA’s work on this, but that may be that some of it’s classified, and I just wasn’t part of it. But I can tell you that our national labs have been deeply involved in this and have done some really fine work both on the mitigation and the adaptation side. So we’ve seen our taxpayer dollars well-spent. But one of the challenges we have with all of the science that’s being developed is that it isn’t adapted to the questions that we have on the ground. And so we have a lot of research science, but we really need to take that science and make it usable for the communities who need to make the choice on a very localized based about how they’ll prepare.
O’NEIL: Great. Let’s take another question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Patricia Rosenfield.
Q: Thank you very much for this really informative master class. It’s a great idea.
And I really appreciate what you were saying about the right incentives and not having the disincentives. I come out of the environmental movement with a Ph.D. in geography and environmental engineering from the 1970s and was at Resources for the Future, which was a very different atmosphere. And while looking back might not always be so useful, I was part of something that the Department of Defense and EPA put together, called the Global Epidemiology Working Group, that looked at the environmental impact of water resource development projects, especially on health. And we had active participation from people across the government, including CEQ, the Council on Environmental Quality, but also places like the Naval War College and other of the academic institutions associated with the military—with the armed forces.
So I wanted to ask you about whether, given the frustrations right now, if there are programs at West Point, the Air Force Academy, the war colleges, and bringing in water—so bringing together pandemics and climate catastrophe, really, climate change, that will bring the next generation, which seems to be more open to these ideas and the intersection of these ideas, so that this is a short-term phenomenon, the frustration that—short term over twenty years. But still, that going forward we might possibly have a new generation of military leaders who are willing to run with this and work with their counterparts on environmental and health issues.
HILL: I think it’s incredibly important. But I don’t think that there is the type of education that you’re describing currently available. The last time I checked, the National War College, they told me they offered one hour on climate change. And we’ve just not even touched the surface today. And then, you know, this is a problem really among our academic institutions. It reflects the problem that we have in the government. Because we’ve had so many historic risks, we have this risk emerging, and then pandemics that will probably be a part of our future as well. But we have all this structure here, and we just don’t know where to fit it and so it gets shortchanged.
And so you will find that public health schools typically don’t have a climate change program. Medical schools haven’t found much room in their curricula to deal with the kinds of threats that we’re going to see from we’ve heard zoonotic, whatever diseases. And then you see the similar—architecture, engineering schools, they aren’t systematically incorporating climate risk in how do you build a bridge that’s resilient to flooding? So there’s a tremendous inertia. And it’s partly just the humans that are in charge. And if you’re younger than a—if you’re older than a certain age, you had no formal education in this. So you just learned whatever you learned through whatever media sources you can consume.
And I think that has resulted in—and with a high politicization of the topic—a really understatement of the seriousness of the challenge. So I don’t think you find you—there are schools that are doing good jobs, but the vast majority, in my experience, are really not systematically educating young people. I recently hosted a group of students from a local university who were interested in national affairs—excuse me—foreign affairs. I asked, are any of you studying climate change? No. That was stunning to me. I think this will dominate our relations across the globe going forward. But we’re not really choosing to say that’s a part of the national—the foreign affairs curricula yet. So that challenge is replicated.
I hope that we can change. I’m going to leave you with one thought. This is from CNA. We’ve heard—they did some groundbreaking work in 2007 and 2014, the think tank. And this is a quote from General Gordon Sullivan, former chief of staff of the U.S. Army. And he chaired the panel that really identified for the first time in the United States these very significant risks from climate change to national security. This was in 2007. He said something that’s just stuck with me forever. He said, “When talking about the uncertainties surrounding climate change, we can’t be deterred by uncertainty. When we wait for 100 percent certainty on the battlefield, something bad happens.” And that’s kind of where we are now.
So if I have any message, I’m thrilled that you all are interested. And this is a field where everything is new, innovative, because we really haven’t done much work on it yet.
O’NEIL: Great. Well, Alice, we’ve come to the end of our hour—our forty-five minutes, I should say. I know everyone’s joining me in thanking you for teaching us today, for laying these issues out, even if we’re leaving on a somewhat positive note here. And for those of you that enjoyed this, come back next Tuesday. We’re going to have Amy Jaffe talking about global energy markets. And hopefully I will see many of you then. But, Alice, thank you, again, for your time today.
HILL: Thank you. My pleasure.