More Climate Surprises Expected

Sargassum seaweed in the Gulf of Mexico / NASA, Michael Stein

After the White House suppressed his Congressional testimony on climate change and national security, Dr. Rod Schoonover, a scientist and analyst with the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research, resigned in protest. Nearly three weeks after his resignation, Schoonover discussed the substance of his testimony with Andrew Light, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI). His primary conclusions: the U.S. and other countries can expect more “climate-linked surprises;” climate change will cause much more than weather-related impacts, and combined with environmental, social, and political events will become a national security “threat multiplier.”

In a June briefing, the White House allowed Dr. Schoonover to give oral testimony, but blocked the submission of his written testimony drafted on behalf of the bureau into the permanent Congressional record. In internal administration emails uncovered by The New York Times, the reasoning for this was the testimony included science that didn’t correspond with White House policy views. The White House called the testimony part of the “climate alarmist establishment.”

Intelligence experts argue that any scientific analysis included in a risk assessment is by nature objective and rooted in mainstream, peer-reviewed findings. The White House’s actions constituted a “suppression of factual analysis by a government intelligence agency.” And According to The Times, the State department’s bureau of intelligence and research is viewed as one of the most “scrupulous and accurate” in the federal government.

In his conversation with Light, Dr. Schoonover said the U.S. intelligence community has been testifying on the coming impacts of climate change since at least the late 90s, so “this is not new territory.”

National security policy decision making is increasingly of a “technical nature.” Therefore, to give policymakers the best analyses, the intelligence community must incorporate the latest science. The intelligence community doesn’t generate the science, but must interpret it objectively. “We need scientists in the U.S. government to stay current. We need scientists to help us understand nuclear, infectious disease, near space objects, and climate change.”

Light said it has been 12 years since the Center for Naval Analysis and the Military Advisory Board published National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, which identified climate change as a threat multiplier. “Since then, the attribution science, isolating the degree to which climate change has an impact, has only improved.” Another study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change, drought, and the onset of civil war in Syria. And in a recent worldwide threat assessment presented to Congress, now-former director of national intelligence Dan Coats identified hot spots where climate change could create conflict, such as Egypt and Sudan.

Dr. Schoonover, who gave up a tenured position teaching complex systems at California Polytechnic State University to work at the federal government, made a few key points that he wasn’t able to elaborate in his abridged Congressional testimony:

The U.S. and other countries should expect more “climate-linked surprises,” which are events with low probabilities but high impacts. For example, no one could have predicted that deforestation in Brazil would lead to fertilizer runoff in the Atlantic Ocean to mix with warming oceanic currents and create massive Sargassum seaweed blooms that would then cover the beaches of the small island nations in the Caribbean. Tons of seaweed now wash up on beaches across the Caribbean every day. “For these countries, Sargassum is a national security threat, as it impacts tourism and economic vitality, strangling their resources.” This is an example of a “surprise element that came out of nowhere. Very rapid changes could occur with dramatic impacts.”

Non-weather climate stressors also create national security risks. He called for moving past a “weather-centric” approach that solely focuses on sea level rise, drought, wildfires, and extreme heat. Peer-reviewed scientific studies find that climate change will also impact ecological food webs and cause mass extinctions and biodiversity loss, which will negatively impact human food systems. Climate change will also impact human health by changing the ranges of infectious disease vectors like mosquitoes. Like with Syria, there is the risk that weather-related climate impacts, such as drought, will cause political and social instability and increase violence.

A final important point: “the bundle of issues is what’s important. Climate change together with environmental degradation and social and political instability is the threat multiplier.”

One thought on “More Climate Surprises Expected

  1. Gus Drum 08/02/2019 / 4:06 pm

    OK, so we can predict the parameters of the climate say 20 to 50 years from now but we couldn’t have imagined that deforestation for agricultural uses could lead to increased amounts of fertilizer washing into the river system and being deposited into the ocean where warm water near the equator causes a massive bloom of seaweed. Really? What individual part of any of those five connected occurrences (deforestation, nutrient loading, rivers going to the ocean, and seaweed blooms from nutrient loading) don’t we fully understand all over the world? Happens everywhere that those conditions are present (I.e. the Mississippi River washes no into the Gulf) and that wasn’t predicted in Brazil? I’m sure that Mr. Light and the WRI understand that connection.

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