Countries should assess climate risk the way they assess other security risks

National security leaders deal with deep uncertainty on a daily basis about everything from North Korea’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon to the location and timing of the next terrorist attack by non-state actors such as ISIS and al-Qaida. Security decision-makers don’t use uncertainty as an excuse to ignore security threats.

Borrowing a page from security analysts, a new report out today by renowned climate experts and high-level government advisors from China, India, the United Kingdom and the United States assesses the risks of climate change in the context of national and international security.

Climate Change: A Risk Assessment by David King, Daniel Schrag, Zhou Dadi, Qi Ye and Arunabha Ghosh first examines different categories of risk, all with significant uncertainties. The general conclusions are:

  • EMISSIONS: Without increased political commitment and an acceleration of technological innovation, global emissions are likely to follow a medium to high pathway: continuing to increase for the next few decades, and then levelling off or decreasing gradually.
  • DIRECT RISKS: The risks of climate change are non-linear: while average conditions may change gradually, the risks can increase rapidly. On a high emissions pathway, the probability of crossing thresholds beyond which the inconvenient may become intolerable will increase over time.
  • SYSTEMIC RISKS: The risks of climate change are systemic. The greatest risks may arise from the interaction of the climate with complex human systems such as global food markets, governance arrangements within states, and international security.

After considering these risks in much greater detail than provided here, the authors concluded with three general recommendations:

1.       The risks of climate change should be assessed in the same way as risks to national security or public health.

2.       The risk assessment should involve a wide range of experts (i.e. policy analysts and energy experts, political leaders, scientists, and national security experts).

3.       The risk assessment should report to the highest level of government (as security assessments do).

I have written before about the need to account for scientific uncertainty as governments plan for a future with climate change, and I was honored to be invited to contribute a short section to this report about how scientists’ attitudes about uncertainty can unwittingly stymie governments’ attempts to assess climate risk.

As I state in the report,

“Scientists who strive to provide useful information about climate change, and decision-makers who seek such information, ‘are linked by a thin thread of climate information that is relevant to their respective endeavors, but they are separated by different needs, priorities, processes and cultures.’ One element that often divides these two communities is the ways in which they characterize and treat uncertainty about future outcomes.”

Consider two types of uncertainty: A “false-positive” is when scientists accept a hypothesis that is actually wrong. Conversely, a “false-negative” occurs when scientists reject a correct hypothesis. Scientists really hate false-positives, but they are not so concerned about false negatives. This mindset is engrained in science because it protects the body of scientific knowledge from being contaminated with misinformation.

On the other hand, risk managers are often more concerned about false-negatives than false-positives. This is why mortgage lenders require borrowers to carry casualty insurance. Since the chances of any one house burning down in a given year could be considered negligibly small, many homeowners elect not to carry fire insurance. But for each house that does burn, this choice results in a devastating false-negative, a risk that mortgage lenders will not tolerate.

The report acknowledges deep uncertainty about the likely outcomes of climate change, but identifies many risks with potentially severe outcomes. And that is what makes climate risk very similar to security risk. Indeed, climate change itself poses many security risks and should be assessed and managed in a similar fashion.

Jay Gulledge is a senior advisor at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions