Climate change and national security

By Matt Collette | Northeastern News | February 20, 2013

Cli­mate change is causing sea levels to rise, and that’s a serious con­cern for the United States Navy, according to David W. Titley, a retired rear admiral.

“We tend to build our bases at sea level,” dead­panned Titley, who led the Navy’s first Task Force for Cli­mate Change and built a career studying the world’s oceans. “This is some­thing we’re going to have to deal with. We’re not the Air Force—we can’t build our bases at 6,000 feet.”

Last week, Titley was the fea­tured speaker at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs’ Open Class­room series, which this semester focuses on the impact of cli­mate change.

Titley said rising seas—which he pre­dicts could increase by as much as a meter by 2100—are just one con­cern for the Navy and the nation’s mil­i­tary com­mu­nity. Rising tides and envi­ron­mental changes could for­ever alter water sup­plies, food chains, and geog­raphy that have stayed largely the same for thou­sands of years.

“If you remember nothing else, know this is all about water,” he said. “There’s too much in some places, too little in others. It’s melted in some places where it’s sup­posed to be solid; it’s salty in places it’s sup­posed to be fresh. And that affects a lot, from national secu­rity to food production.”

Titley noted that while cli­mate has been largely stable for about the last 15,000 years, it has begun to enter uncharted ter­ri­tory, par­tic­u­larly in places like the Arctic, which has seen dra­matic changes in ice melt cycles in the last decade.

“For most of human his­tory, the extremes stayed where they were; the aver­ages were what we had come to expect,” Titley said. “But now the cli­mates are starting to change, and we have to adapt.”

The Navy, he said, is mon­i­toring how melting ice is opening up the long-sought North­west Pas­sage, a new ocean pas­sage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans north of Canada. In addi­tion to chal­lenges caused by melted ice, the new ocean route raises ques­tion of trade, national bound­aries, and nav­i­gable routes (car­tog­ra­phers have had little need or oppor­tu­nity to chart an ocean that until recently was almost entirely cov­ered by ice year-round).

“For the first time in 500 years, we’re opening up a new ocean,” Titley said. “The last guy to do that was Christo­pher Columbus.”

Titley said the mil­i­tary is uniquely suited to tackle cli­mate change issues due to a deeply ingrained tra­di­tion of long-term plan­ning on every­thing from demo­graphics to polit­ical regimes.

The Open Class­room series, which is hosted by policy school and engi­neering pro­fessor Matthias Ruth, interim policy school dean Joan Fitzgerald, and former pres­i­dent of the Con­ser­va­tion Law Foun­da­tion Dou­glas Foy, con­tinues Wednesday evenings through April 17 in 20 West Vil­lage F. The classes run from 6–8 p.m.

This week’s ses­sion will focus on transportation—which in the United States is respon­sible for one-third of all carbon emis­sions, Ruth noted—and fea­tures Pro­fessor of Prac­tice in Law and Public Policy Stephanie Pol­lack and Al Biehler, a former state trans­porta­tion offi­cial in Penn­syl­vania and a fac­ulty member at Carnegie Mellon University.

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