State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

An Admiral Assesses Climate Change

By Jaclyn Rabinowitz

Columbia University’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate hosted its biggest seminar to date on Thursday, Sept. 22, to an audience of over 100 people. David Titley presented a talk entitled Climate Risk and National Security: People not Polar Bears. Titley, a retired U.S. rear admiral and now a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and founding director of its Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, brought humor to a serious topic and how it affects people and geopolitics.

Titley narrowed down the reasons why we should care about climate to three areas: people, water and change. First, human life is affected by climate. It affects our food supply, our energy supply and our water supply. From the dwindling supplies of freshwater to the acidification of the oceans to the melting ice in the Arctic, there are undeniable impacts on water. Change is the most frightening of the three. Titley said that, since the dawn of human civilization, we have had a fairly good grasp on what the climate would be. We could accurately anticipate cold spells, variations in sunlight and other factors. But now, everything we thought we knew is changing, and everything we have taken for granted is going to change. “If climate changes faster than we can change, this is conflict—especially in areas where people are already struggling,” he said.

Retired Rear Admiral David Titley described the potential effects of climate on geopolitics.
Retired Rear Admiral David Titley described the potential effects of climate on geopolitics.

Many people are examining climate as a security risk. In fact, President Barack Obama just signed a memorandum saying the federal government must think of climate as a security issue in nearly every sphere. Titley discussed several examples. First was Svalbard, a far northern Norwegian island. It hosts research that dates to a World War I treaty that grants full sovereignty to Norway, but allows all signatory countries rights to fishing, hunting, mineral resources and use of research facilities. When the Russian government recently sent its deputy prime minister to Svalbard and the Norwegians found out about it from the television, it created geopolitical tension. Since Norway is part of the NATO alliance, how would the United States respond if Russia started pushing in Svalbard?

The second example is whether climate-change-influenced drought in Syria—an idea put forth by research done at Columbia—is one of the links in a chain of events that led to the Syrian war. Climate magnified and intensified the drought in Syria, thus influencing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s political decisions, say researchers. That, coupled with other tensions in the area, including an influx of millions of refugees from the Iraq war, may have allowed extremist groups like ISIS to gain power in the region. “We can’t say that climate caused ISIS, but here is a definite link between climate and geopolitics,” said Titley.

Another major point throughout Titley’s talk was learning how to speak to people with different agendas. He stated that one must learn to talk to people in a way that resonates with them. You have to learn how to bring things to them in a manner that they can relate to. He spoke about how he presented climate change to a group of fellow Navy admirals. He drove his point home to them by using words such as “capacity” and “readiness,” while making little mention of climate itself.

He said that disparate groups of people are now coming at climate change from different directions. These include the media, business people, environmentalists and religious leaders. He said that everyone is ultimately reaching the conclusion that climate is a serious issue requiring action. We need to adapt for the changes that are coming, and we need to decarbonize our energy structure, he said.

Titley’s final takeaway: The United States has the opportunity to take the lead on climate change. “What America does counts at home and also abroad. When we get focused, we can do amazing things,” he said. “Incredible ingenuity together makes amazing things—we can scale that up and let America lead the way, once we get focused.”


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