Thursday, November 20, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #13: Addressing Climate Change Without Talking About Climate Change

Inara Scott, Assistant Professor, College of Business, Oregon State University

Talking about climate change gets depressing fast. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t help. Though the practical reality of the current situation is buried deep in scenarios, options, and complex modeling, the bottom line is that the current rate of emissions will bring global temperature increases in the range of 3.7 to 4.8° C by 2100,[1] a scenario most agree would be “devastating” to human society.[2]  A “4°C world” will experience severe drought, species and habitat extinction, and risks worldwide tipping points with unpredictable future outcomes.[3]

Given this dramatic trajectory, why do only 34% of Americans worry “a great deal” about climate change?[4] One problem may be our cognitive hardwiring. As a species, humans aren’t good at making long-term decisions and are particularly apt to choose short-term gains over long-term benefits. Also, studies suggest that activism is likely to be driven in part by feelings of efficacy—i.e., the more hopeless and dire the situation appears, the less likely people will be to get involved in political advocacy.[5] Thus, our attempts to inspire activism by educating people about the enormity of the climate change problem may backfire by making people less likely to become involved in climate activism.

But what is the alternative? What do I suggest for those of us who are deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change, and want to inspire action toward both adaptation and mitigation? Absolutely not to ignore, turn back, or stop important research and outreach related to the causes and long-term impacts of climate change. However, as lawyers who are deeply attuned to the power of language and the art of persuasion, I believe we must recognize the harm we may be doing by leading our arguments with the devastating and irreversible effects of climate change, and consider when and where to emphasize positive and realistic strategies for mitigation and adaptation.

The topic of national security provides an excellent backdrop for exploring this concept. Working Group II of the IPCC describes significant risks to human security from climate change, including displacement and migration caused by rising sea levels, loss of arable land, and drought.[6] Conflicts over scarce resources, including food and water, can exacerbate conflicts between nations and increase instability of governments. Climate change must be considered as a “threat multiplier,” which exacerbates existing conflicts and risks—including the radicalization of tensions between and among ethic and religious groups and the spread of terrorism.[7] It takes little imagination to conclude that a hot, arid, water-constrained planet, marked by warring ethnic and religious factions and unstable governments, threatens United States’ interests, both abroad and at home.

Yet in the area of national security, there is much that can be done toward the twin goals of adaptation and mitigation that is practical and achievable. The U.S. military, the single largest energy consumer in the world,[8] has a deeply rooted interest in minimizing its dependence on fossil fuels. Meeting the fossil fuel needs of military operations requires constant resupply and fuel delivery, demanding huge amounts of financial and troop resources and putting those working on supply chains at significant risk.[9] Technological innovation in the areas of energy efficiency, renewable resources, and alternative fuels could reduce military casualties, improve mobility, and minimize vulnerabilities to attack. It could also have profound impacts on global carbon emissions, and, as a result, reduce the extent of global warming.[10] Through congressional and presidential mandates, the Department of Defense is uniquely positioned among government agencies to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.[11] However, if the rhetoric for such efforts is based primarily on threats related to climate change, they are vulnerable to (at best) public apathy or (at worst) political stonewalling.[12]

Other political strategies related to improving national security also have the potential for significant climate change mitigation. For example, efforts to prevent deforestation in Indonesia through programs like REDD could help stabilize the fragile Indonesian government—a key United States security goal because of the country’s large Muslim population, which could become a threat if it were to become radicalized.[13] At home, a number of major military installations, including Naval Station Norfolk, are in areas threatened by rising sea levels and storms, which threaten both the military bases and the surrounding community.[14] Adaptation to these conditions may require modification of roads, bridges, water systems, and both public and private infrastructure.[15] While the long-term impact of climate change is clearly relevant in both cases, “4°C world” scenarios are not necessary to prove the importance and benefit of taking such measures.

The problem of climate change requires a multifaceted approach. The area of national security provides fertile ground for mitigation and adaptation efforts that improve U.S. security and address current vulnerabilities, while also offering significant co-benefits in the fight against global warming. The key to achieving those benefits may lie in an emphasis on practical, achievable, and positive steps to change.

[1] WGIII Summary for Policymakers.

[2] Schellnhuber, Hans Joachim et al., Executive summary, Turn Down The Heat : Why A 4 Degree Celsius Warmer World Must Be Avoided V, World Bank (2014), at

[3] See id. at 1-2; WGII: Summary for Policymakers at 13.

[4] Newport, Frank, Americans Show Low Levels of Concern on Global Warming, Gallup, Apr. 14, 2014

[5] Connie Roser-Renouf, et al., The Genesis of Climate Change Activism: From Key Beliefs to Political Action, 125 Climatic Change 163 (2014).

[6] See WGII: Summary for Policymakers at 20.

[7] United States Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 8 (2014), at; CNA Military Advisory Board, National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change 2 (2014), at [hereinafter CNA Report].

[8] Velandy, Siddhartha M., The Green Arms Race: Reorienting the Discussions on Climate Change, Energy Policy, and National Security, 3 Harv. Nat’l. Sec. J. 309, 323-328 (2012).

[9] See id. at 324.

[10] Limiting global warming to will require significant reductions in fossil fuel consumption. Working Group III of the IPCC notes that scenarios limiting global temperature increases to 2° C include “more rapid improvements in energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply from renewables, [and] nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) or bioenergy with CCS.” WGIII Summary for Policymakers at 13.

[11] For a thorough discussion of the complex relationship between the military and the environment, and the potential for the military to drive innovation in the energy industry, see Sarah E. Light, The Military-Environmental Complex, 55 B.C. L. Rev. 879, 907-914 (2014).

[12] Climate Science Watch, House Votes to Direct the Pentagon to Disregard Climate Change Assessments, June 24, 2014, at

[13] REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), is a United Nations collaborative initiative. See Joshua W. Busby, Climate Change and National Security: An Agenda for Action, Council on Foreign Relations, CFR No. 32, at 20-21 (2007), at

[14] See CNA Report, supra note 7, at 25.

[15] See id

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