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Climate change report: Can US adapt to severe weather Alaskans call normal?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Photo courtesy Sandra Quinn

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Research Council (NRC) have released a reportcommissioned by the CIA and various other American intelligence agencies on the security threats posed by climate change. The report's goal is to inform intelligence agencies as to how to best carry out monitoring to anticipate climate-related disasters, help prevent them from occurring, and, when they do, respond to emergencies.

The report investigates how climate change could potentially induce social and political stresses that will affect U.S. security over the next decade. The report committee's chair, John Steinbruner, writes, "There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized."

Climate change and the Arctic

The Arctic actually happens to be excluded from the report, since it focuses more on countries and regions which might not be able to respond adequately to the consequences of climate change, rather than international areas where climate change could induce militaristic and commercial competition. Instead, a separate report from the National Research Council in 2011 outlines how changes in the Arctic will affect U.S. naval forces.

The NAS/NRC quotes a 2007 report from the Center for Naval Analysis, which stated, "Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world." The Arctic is not especially volatile, as there is already a good system of governance there through the Arctic Council, and the eight member states are quite stable compared to other parts of the world. They do not suffer from the "poor governance, societal inequalities, and 'bad neighbors' (countries characterized by ongoing violence" that a 2010 study by the World Bank mentioned in the report posits as pre-existing conditions that set the stage for climate-change induced conflict. In contrast to the Arctic, Egypt is a place where climate change could cause already-high social and political tensions to erupt.

Demand on the Nile River will increase as populations in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan grow. Countries like South Korea and Saudi Arabia have purchased land along the river to provide food for their own populations. Foreign land ownership could fall under pressure if a local famine were to occur, for instance. One connection that can be drawn here is that similar to the Arctic, countries are quite protective of their resources, whether oil or land, and wary of foreign interference. South Korea is a country with ample financial resources of its own, but few natural resources. Hence, it is extending its reach into multiple contentious areas, including both the Arctic and the Middle East, in search of oil, gas, and food. This is all fine in times of relative peace and prosperity, but when push comes to shove, conflict could erupt.

Long-term consequences for the North?

The 2010 NRC report on the Arctic notes that people fleeing climate-related disasters in North Africa could migrate en masse to countries in southern Europe, stressing social infrastructure there. This is in the near term, though; in the long term, it is plausible that people could move even farther north, perhaps to countries in the circumpolar north, as Dr. Laurence Smith's book, "The New North: The World in 2050," hypothesizes. I am currently reading J.G. Ballard's novel, "The Drowned World," published in 1962. Though heavy on the sci-fi, it conceives of a world where the ice caps have melted and the only inhabitable places are at the world's high latitudes. Fantastical when written half a century ago, the scenario depicted could now be plausible in the next century.

Climate change is occurring rapidly in the Arctic, more so than many other parts of the world. The melting sea ice cap and Greenland Ice Sheet, increase in albedo effect, and potential release of methane into the air by melting permafrost could have far-reaching effects. What happens in the Arctic ecosystem is not contained. As temperatures rise, there could be wetter winters in Europe and North America with more extreme weather events.

Similar linkages are occurring elsewhere around the globe. The report speaks of "clusters of extreme events," such as between the heat wave in Russia in 2010 and the dramatic monsoons in Pakistan that same year.

Yet even though the number of weather-related natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, seems to be on the increase, that does not mean that the public will begin to take heed of climate change. A blog post by George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), describes how the sort of "pull-together" response that emerges from communities which have been hit by a natural disaster can actually be counter-productive to increasing acceptance of the reality of climate change. A sense of hopelessness and despair can also cause people to hunker down rather than change their ways and become more resilient. Contrariwise, extended events that unfold over longer periods of time, such as droughts and heat waves, can cause people to better realize that change is in the air, quite literally.

Mitigation and adaptation

In the Arctic, many of the changes that are taking place fall more into the extended, rather than extreme, event category. Perhaps this is one reason why many people in the circumpolar north accept climate change and have moved on to mitigation and adaptation strategies rather than holing up and shielding themselves from the harsh realities of the future. I think that what all of this reports and blog posts suggest, though, is that everything is interlinked, whether it's atmospheric and oceanic currents, weather patterns, or climate change and security.

We need to have an extremely interdisciplinary, bird's eye view of both the processes involved in climate change and its consequences on society in order to wrap our heads around developing adaptation strategies customized to fit local needs and beliefs. As Marshall writes, "It would be hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than an environmental activist organisation dropping a banner in the midst of a conservative community after a major disaster." The same is true in many indigenous communities in the Arctic, where people are often resistant to outside interference from governmental agencies, which tell them how to hunt, for example. Certain communities in Northern Canada and West Greenland believe that the number of animals in the cosmos is fixed and that populations do not decline due to over-hunting or pollution. Instead, they merely move elsewhere. While such a viewpoint might be hard for Westerners to accept, this is one example demonstrating that we need to work within local contexts when trying to forge adaptation strategies. It's important to recognize that especially with controversial issues like climate change, adaptation must originate organically, rather than being imposed from above. This is a much more difficult and complex task than simply saying that one strategy will work for the entire planet, but in the end, it will result in more resilient communities.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.