“One of the most important accomplishments of the MEDEA program was to convince the intelligence community that near-term climate change is important for national security,” said D. James Baker, former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and member of the MEDEA Program, at a panel at the American Geophysical Union’s virtual 2020 Fall Meeting. Organized by ISciences LLC’s Tom Parris, CASE Consultants International’s Eileen Shea, and Columbia University’ Robert Chen, the panel focused on how to build an effective knowledge-to-action enterprise that helps policymakers and society respond to emerging eco-security challenges. (See below for links to short, pre-recorded videos panelists shared prior to the panel to inform the discussion.)
Build Trust through Sustained Dialogue
Decision-makers are looking for whether “you, as a scientist, believe what you’re saying,” said Baker. It is more about trust than the specifics of any scientific discipline. Decisions have always been and will always be made while the scientific enterprise continues.
The active process of building trust through ongoing dialogue between scientists and policy actors is a foundational concept, agreed panelists. Creating opportunities to “have scientists in the room with policymakers” to help ensure that scientific insights in the form of actionable information are presented at the right moment is important, said Annalise Blum, a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow supporting Peacekeeping and Stabilization Operations in the Department of Defense. Geoff Dabelko, Professor and Associate Dean at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University and Senior Advisor to the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, cited the importance of scientists recognizing that security actors make decisions all the time based on information with varying levels of certainty/uncertainty. In that context, scientists are not expected to provide absolute certainty but, rather, convey an assessment of how confident they are in the findings that they are presenting. Building trust through dialogue, Dabelko said, recognizes that security actors will make their own assessments so scientists can focus on presenting research findings relevant to the issue at hand.
Don’t Debate, Integrate!
In the context of confidence in science, Cullen Hendrix, Director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver, highlighted the value of an “integrative mode of academic inquiry and discourse” that emphasizes areas of scientific agreement, rather than the currently dominant mode of scientific “debate.” Hendrix said that debate advances an adversarial mode that tends to exaggerate disagreements and uncertainty, implying “winners” and “losers.” Discussion among the panelists highlighted the importance of looking for new or innovative ways of convening science/policy discussions in an open and safe environment that emphasizes shared learning and joint problem-solving.
Boundary Organizations and Shared Data
An integrative approach can be fostered in a safe discussion place, said Dabelko, so that science and policy can “meet in the middle.” Existing and emerging boundary organizations can provide that necessary safe space by facilitating collaboration and information flow between diverse science disciplines and between the science and public policy community. Referring to the results of a recent National Science Foundation-funded project, Dabelko noted that decisions about who convenes a discussion can either open the exchange to a variety of points of view or implicitly constrain dialogue to a particular point of view. Boundary organizations can provide a neutral platform to convene scientists and security actors in an integrative approach to science/policy discourse around targeted issues.
The MEDEA Program—a successful boundary organization that began in the early 1990s with the support of then Vice President Gore and CIA Director Gates—is an important example. The program provided wide access to environmental measurements and imagery from previously classified collections conducted by the U.S. National Security community. These data immediately proved valuable to enhancing scientific understanding of environmental change at a global scale and, conversely, how environmental change was affecting national, international, and human security risks. Some elements of MEDEA continue to this day, underscoring the value of accessible data and the scientific insights that data can inspire.
As progress continues on data collection, new tools to visualize and share analysis of the data are emerging. For example, ISciences has recently launched a new, open-science platform of data and analytical tools for eco-security, DANTE, to increase accessibility to and accelerate the interdisciplinary study of environmental stresses, demographics, economics, health, political instability, and humanitarian response by sharing data, tools, and demonstrations of methods.
Effective leadership plays a critical role in successful eco-security endeavors, said Blum and Mike Farrar, Chief Scientist, Weather Operations, U.S. Air Force and President-Elect of the American Meteorological Society, reflecting on their experiences at the Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force. There’s value in having leadership at the top of an organization that recognizes the importance of the environment-security nexus, said Blum. There is a need to engage scientists directly involved in the decision-making process and value in engaging all affected stakeholders. Farrar reflected on the longstanding recognition of Air Force leadership in understanding and addressing changing environmental conditions in both operational and planning programs as well as the value of science as part of the Air Force mission. Importantly, Farrar noted that “environment and security” will be the organizing theme of 2022 AMS Annual Meeting.
The process of building an effective and enduring national security enterprise that anticipates and responds to global environmental change is challenging. This challenge can be better met by enhancing partnerships through an integrative process that builds trust. We need to bring diverse actors together in safe spaces to engage in sustained dialogue using collaborative discourse and shared data. This integrative approach can help pave the way towards national security and environmental sustainability.
The opinions expressed in this summary, the videos and panel discussion are those of the individual presenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers, affiliated organizations, the session organizers, or the AGU.
Tom M. Parris, President of ISciences, has over 30 years of experience in the analysis of sustainability, vulnerability, and conflict using his skills in policy analysis, quantitative natural and social science, information science, remote sensing and geospatial analysis. Recent work includes monitoring and forecasting of global surface water anomalies, continental-scale time-series mapping of consumptive use of water due to irrigation, and strategic resilience of countries facing risk of political instability.
Eileen Shea brings four decades of government and private-sector experience to understanding the vulnerability of businesses, communities and natural resources to a changing climate and applying climate information to address those issues. Her expertise extends from local, national and international climate services, to sustainable risk management and public policy.
This summary was derived from the presentations provided to the American Geophysical Union as part of the American Geophysical Union 2020 Fall meeting by panelists invited to participate in Session SY052, “Intel: Enhancing Partnerships Between Academic and National Security Communities to Address Eco-Security Challenges” (membership required to access panel recording). The following pre-recorded videos were prepared by panelists in advance of the session to inform the discussion:
The MEDEA Program: A Collaboration between Academia and the National Security Community, D. James Baker, former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and member of the MEDEA Program; The Tempest Within: Reconciling Disagreements on Climate-Conflict Links for Security Practitioners, Dr. Cullen Hendrix, Director Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver; Lessons from Boundary Organizations: Connecting Scholars and Security Practitioners on Environment and Security, Dr. Geoffrey Dabelko, Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Ohio University and Senior Advisor, Environmental Change and Security Program, Wilson Center; A Network to Meet the Security Challenges of Environmental Stressors and Instability, Annalise Blum, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Peacekeeping and Stabilization Operations, Department of Defense; Weather, Water and Climate Impacts on National Security: Complementary Perspectives from Leadership Roles in the US Air Force and the American Meteorological Society, Mike Farrar, Chief Scientist, Weather Operations, US Air Force and President-Elect American Meteorological Society.
Photo Credit: Panelists Mike Farrar (upper far left), Geoffrey Dabelko (upper middle right), James Baker (upper far right), Cullen Hendrix (center far left), Robert Chen (center middle left), Tom Parris (center middle right), Eileen Shea (middle far right), and Annalise Blum (lower left), used with permission courtesy of the American Geophysical Union.