Millions of farmers and their families — from Central America to Southeast Asia to Africa —have fled their homes amid drought and widespread crop failure. Forced to choose between flight or death, their numbers could swell to as many as 143 million by 2050, a U.S. report warns, unleashing the greatest wave of migration the world has seen.
As nations fall short of the reduction in net greenhouse emissions needed to meet Paris Agreement goals, international tensions will likely rise as countries debate who bears more responsibility to act and pay — and how quickly.
Summer wildfires, fueled by land parched with drought, consume vast swaths of forests in the United States. Among the country’s unsung heroes are U.S. National Guard members, who increasingly serve on the frontlines battling the blazes.
These examples are part of a growing narrative from U.S. intelligence and homeland security agencies on how climate change isn’t just an environmental problem, it’s a threat to national security.
At the direction of the U.S. Congress, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have entered into a partnership to establish a Climate Security Roundtable. The roundtable will convene experts from academia, the private sector and civil society, as well as government, to support an existing federal interagency Climate Security Advisory Council. The council is a partnership between the intelligence and federal science communities to better understand and anticipate the ways climate change affects U.S. national security interests. The roundtable’s experts will provide perspectives and analysis to help the Climate Security Advisory Council leverage the technical expertise and capabilities outside of the federal government and better inform national security assessments.
Arizona State University is the only organization with two appointees to the Climate Security Roundtable: Nadya Bliss, executive director of the Global Security Initiative, and Vernon Morris, director of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.
Bliss leads ASU’s hub for interdisciplinary security research and primary interface to the defense, intelligence and homeland security communities. She also serves as vice chair of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Information Science and Technology Study Group and will assume the role of chair later this summer. The group brings top scientists and engineers together to identify new areas of development in computer and communication technologies and potential research directions for DARPA, a Department of Defense organization that advances breakthrough technologies for national security. Prior to joining ASU in 2012, she spent 10 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, most recently as founding group leader of the Computing and Analytics Group.
“I’m not what you consider a traditional climate change expert. I’m not even a nontraditional climate change expert,” she says. “I am a national security expert. I’m a computer scientist. I’ve done a lot of work in coupling advanced research capabilities with mission needs, in areas such as disinformation, cybersecurity and, in this case, climate change. I see climate change as something we call a wicked problem.” Wicked problems involve many interdependent factors that can make them seem impossible to solve.
Bliss recently co-authored a white paper for the Computing Community Consortium that highlights the role of computing research in addressing climate change induced challenges.
“Climate change is an existential threat to the United States and the world,” the authors write. “Inevitably, computing will play a key role in mitigation, adaptation and resilience in response to this threat.”
The authors examined six key areas where these challenges will arise: energy, environmental justice, transportation, infrastructure, agriculture, and environmental monitoring and forecasting. A climate change action plan, the white paper reveals specific ways in which computing research can play a key role in reducing threats, using devices and architectures, software, algorithms/AI/robotics and sociotechnical computing. One example is using advanced decision support systems to determine the best incentives to encourage people to hop a bus or drive an electric vehicle.
Morris joined ASU as a chemistry and environmental sciences professor and director of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in 2020. From 2001 to 2020, he served as founding director of the NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology, where he was a chemistry professor and founder of the Atmospheric Sciences Program. As a researcher, he’s examined how tiny particles in the air — such as droplets, dust particles or bits of fine black carbon — can have an outsized impact on the planet’s climate.
“I directed a NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] center for about 18 years, where one of our themes was developing integrated decision support systems — taking environmental observations and bringing those into modeling and predictive systems for the specific purpose of informing decisions,” he says.
He served as chief scientist aboard the Aerosol and Ocean Science Expeditions, or AEROSE, a first-of-its kind series of transatlantic research cruises to track and characterize the properties of Saharan desert dust. The field expeditions produced data that proved instrumental in validating satellite measurements, refining climate and weather models, and advancing the understanding of atmospheric chemistry. Supporting his drive to make atmospheric science a more inclusive field, Morris included dozens of students from historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions on expeditions.
A diversity of perspectives and experiences is crucial for addressing climate security successfully. Often the people most impacted by climate change — such as people living in low-lying Pacific Island nations that may become uninhabitable as sea levels rise or Central American farmers who can’t grow crops — have little influence on decision-making. As a member of the Climate Security Roundtable, Morris will advocate for equity in climate change policymaking.
“I’m interested in broadening the number of voices and perspectives that go into the ultimate decision-making process,” he says.
Sounding the alarm
“The national security community has recognized climate change as a threat multiplier for decades,” says Bliss. But the nation’s security agencies collectively communicated the climate risks they face for the first time in October 2021, when the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Homeland Security and National Security Council released four distinct reports on the issue.
The reports include the National Intelligence Estimate, a first-of-its-kind document produced by the National Intelligence Council, the most senior intelligence analysts with deep expertise on security threats facing the United States and the rest of the world.
The NIE echoes climate scientists’ warning that the world is off track to meet the Paris Climate Accords’ goals of keeping the Earth’s temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial norms. Estimates show temperatures are expected to increase to 2.0 degrees Celsius by midcentury.
The report says climate change risks to American national security will only grow in the years to come. Among its predictions: The so-called decarbonization pressure — the pressure to mitigate climate change — will spike global tensions as countries argue about how to accelerate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change will ignite cross-border flash points, with a growing risk of conflict between countries over water and migration. And the effects of climate change will be felt most acutely in developing countries that are least equipped to adapt.
While the challenges appear daunting, Bliss sees signs of hope in both the Climate Security Roundtable and ASU’s role in it.
“It’s really important to take a hopeful perspective, knowing there are ways to move forward that are positive,” she says. “I think the National Academies brings the level of rigor, professionalism, expertise and convening power that is needed for this kind of problem.”
“ASU has committed to tangibly improving the world in many dimensions,” she adds. “And anticipating and mitigating national security risks is one of them.”