Defense Establishment Approach Could Reboot Climate Change Debate

As the new United States Congress prepares to hold hearings on the politically polarized issue of climate change, and rising global oil and food prices begin to impact the economic recovery, a new report says a time-tested, apolitical approach could offer a clear and non-partisan path forward.  

"Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security," produced by the non-profit organization E3G, is the result of a series of closed-door meetings with national and international security, intelligence and defense officials. The report recommends using a risk management approach to break logjams and tackle climate change.

"The risk-management approach makes sense even if you have questions about the effects of climate change," said E3G chief executive Nick Mabey, one of the report's authors.  "You don't buy fire insurance because you know your house will burn down.  You buy it because you don't know it won't."

Risk management considers variables both known and unknown, analyzes threats and vulnerabilities, decides on an acceptable level of risk, and puts strategies in place in an effort to keep that risk within the acceptable range.

"It comes down to this: how much risk are we willing to take?" Mabey said.

Risk management is a methodology the national security community has long used when hard decisions must be made, but information about threats is incomplete, and the future is uncertain. It is an approach that is also commonly used in fields from disaster preparedness to financial services regulation. And a less formal version of risk management analysis plays into the calculations people make every day, when deciding where to live or whether to buy insurance.

"The scientific evidence that the climate is likely to change significantly in the next few decades is far more solid than the evidence that usually underpins security decisions in other areas, like nuclear proliferation or the actions of rogue states," said co-author Jay Gulledge, PhD, who directs the Pew Center's Science and Impacts Program and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"The national security community and the military are experts at risk management," Mabey said. "We should take a page from their book when it comes to climate change. Risk management could offer a common-sense way for leaders across the political spectrum to tackle climate and energy policy."

Risk management is an approach that must be tailored by decision-makers, but as a starting point, "Degrees of Risk" proposes a three-tier approach to planning:

  • Aim to stay below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) of warming, which is the target committed to by the world's major economies
  • Build and budget assuming 3-4 degrees C (5.4-7.2 degrees F) of warming, which is what current international agreements would allow
  • Make contingency plans for 5-7 degrees C (9-12.6 degrees F) of warming, which remains a real possibility, in part because international agreements are not binding