Titley Presents on Climate Change and National Security

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David W. Titley / Photo courtesy of Collider.org

A local non-profit innovation center recently brought an internationally recognized expert on climate change to give a presentation on how it affects national security.

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David W. Titley shared his perspective at The Collider. He began by framing the context of climate’s impact and influence on decision makers.

“We have these needs for food, energy, and water — I would argue that water is the lynchpin of those three, but we are increasingly connected in a globalized society,” Titley said.

Titley said when we think about climate it’s fundamentally going to be a people issue.

“It’s going to affect you and me, our families, our neighbors, our communities, our state, our region, and our nation. If you want to think about an integrative focusing mechanism for our climate, you can think about water. Too much, too little, wrong place, wrong time, salty where it used to be fresh, wet where it used to be dry, liquid where it used to be solid, and even the very chemistry of the ocean itself is changing.” 

An image of Earth was displayed on the screen that showed in descending order, and to scale, the entire amount of water on the planet, the amount of fresh water, and superimposed over the city of Atlanta, the amount of usable fresh water. “How that is changing has fundamental implications on our way of life, our economy, and our health.”

According to Titley, the basic physics about greenhouse gasses hinges upon three points, observational records of decades of past events, detailed understanding of the physics that cause the weather itself, and sophisticated computer models that simulate the chances of extreme events if there were no man-made, heat-trapping gases warming the atmosphere.      

A British statistician named George E.P. Box once famously said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Titley said the sentiment behind this quote applies to climate predictions made by Jim Hensen, an American adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, in the early 1980s, and those more recently prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In retrospect, Hansen’s specific predictions proved to be too conservative, but he was right about the general trend of global warming. The IPCC predictions, based on data collected by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) fail to capture year-to-year variability, but when averaged out accurately confirm the trend. “So, we get understanding, we have observations, we have predictions. That’s why the scientists feel so compelled to talk about this. When the science community says it has high confidence it’s because everything just fits together.”

Titley asked for a show of hands from the audience to see, “Who believes in climate change,” and all hands went up — trick question. He said he doesn’t. “It’s a cheap rhetorical trick, but the science community doesn’t function on a belief system. I am convinced by the overwhelming evidence that climate change is a reasonable theory.” In the security realm, Titley said climate change impacts three things, geographically where the military works, security infrastructure, and making bad situations worse.

“As Arctic ice melts it becomes a different environment than what the military had prepared for. The security infrastructure at Norfolk and other Navy bases are affected by rising water levels, heat stress, and smoke from wildfires. In places such as Syria that already have instability, climate change can be the ‘last straw’ that takes it from being really bad to catastrophic,” Titley said.

Security professionals think in terms of readiness and capacity, “I’ve got my equipment. I’ve got all my people, soldiers, sailors and Marines, but when push comes to shove and somebody’s shooting at us, am I going to be able to achieve the results required of me?”   

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites use microwaves that can see through darkness and clouds to photograph the Arctic. These images can differentiate between the thick, hard older ice and newer ice to observe the overall circulation and other dynamics that occur in the ice fields.

The Arctic is a harsh environment that happens to be very rich in resources such as natural gas, and minerals that the United States and Russia are both eager to exploit. Receding ice makes these resources and navigation routes easier for other countries to access, and is viewed by Russia as a loathsome threat.

Titley said that with leadership, teamwork, and organization we can get better at predicting in time frames people care about, such as 10 to 20 years hence. What can one person do? He encouraged becoming better educated and recommends content titled “What We Know” from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Consider what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint while maintaining our lifestyle with regard to choices in everything from where we get our food and water to employing energy efficient architectural techniques to heat and cool our workspaces and homes. We must also monitor and inquire about what our elected leaders are doing to stabilize our climate. Politicians want our votes.

Donated photographs:

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David W. Titley gave his presentation on climate change at The Collider.

In descending order, and to scale, the entire amount of water on the planet, the amount of fresh water, and superimposed over the city of Atlanta, the amount of usable fresh water.