Climate change will be one of the critical forces shaping the coming century…it will fundamentally alter the way we live, the risks we face and how we interact in an increasingly interdependent world.
- Policy-makers must listen to risk professionals and acknowledge the rapidly increasing dangers of climate change. Nearly all of us practice some risk management in our lives. That’s why we buy health insurance, liability insurance, homeowner’s insurance, long-term care insurance and vehicle insurance. Risk management is no less important in regard to global warming.
- Elected officials must listen to the climate science community. At the same time, scientists must clearly communicate the upper end of plausible climate risks rather than middle-ground risks. Politicians and policy makers tend to flock to the middle of the risk spectrum – a kind of Goldilocks and the Three Bears tendency where we want risks that are not too hot and not too cold. Good risk management requires that we anticipate and prepare for the worst.
- Climate scientists should interact regularly with risk, security, public health, and disaster prevention and response agencies to help them anticipate and cope with emerging climate impacts.
- To minimize climate risks, national leaders must find an effective balance between sovereignty and international collaboration. Existing international institutions probably will prove inadequate to deal with the unprecedented demands of climate change; new international institutions and mechanisms will be needed.
- Public officials and citizens alike must invest in prevention – in other words, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the danger of climate change, and adaptation measures that reduce the intensity of climate crises. We should not wait for the crises to arrive, any more than we can wait to buy auto insurance until we’re in the middle of a head-on collision.
- Nations should begin serious contingency planning now, internally and with other countries in their regions. Some of the most severe climate change will involve nations where historic tensions already exist. India and Pakistan, or India and Bangladesh come to mind. The time to plan is now, in hopes the overriding threat of climate change will be the external enemy that draws old adversaries together.
- Local officials should build risk assessment and management into infrastructure and climate adaptation projects. The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of development aid investment is at risk from climate change. To avoid carbon lock-in (i.e., actions that lock us in to greenhouse gas emissions for decades), we must stop building conventional coal plants and making other long-term carbon commitments. But we must also avoid “vulnerability lock-in”. The critical infrastructure we build today – ranging from power and water treatment plants to hospitals and vital transportation systems – should be designed for resilience and located to avoid floods, sea level rise and other impacts of climate change.
- The Executive Branch and Congress should regularly review climate risks to determine whether federal agencies have the authority and resources they need to respond rapidly to emerging worst-case scenarios. An even more interesting issue is whether the Executive Branch has sufficient power to prevent climate emergencies without Congressional interference – for example, by redefining 100-year floodplains based on anticipated future flooding rather than past flooding, and restricting development within predicted flood zones.
- Governments must put adequate resources into research that improves our understanding of how climate change will affect us at the regional and local levels. Research should include “perfect storm” events where multiple impacts and stresses occur simultaneously.
- Governments should classify climate change as a national security issue in budgeting as well as planning. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the Bush administration allocated $88 to military forces in 2008 for every dollar it earmarked for climate stabilization. President Obama’s stimulus package and first budget narrowed the security-climate gap to 9:1 – a dramatic improvement, but still not an adequate reflection that low-carbon technologies and resources have become critical tools of conflict prevention, global stability and national defense.
We are rapidly approaching a time when the nations most threatened by climate change will regard coal-burning as an act of aggression and when nations will conflict over who gets dwindling supplies of finite resources. That makes solar collectors and wind turbines as important as conventional weapons in our national defense arsenal.
As I’ve written before, our biggest risk is that we’ll fail to close the gap between what scientists tell us is necessary and what politicians believe is possible. We won’t be able to narrow that gap until elected officials worldwide accept that the security risk of failing to act on climate change is far greater than the political risks of bold preventive action.
William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.