National Security

Pew's Gulledge discusses risks associated with extreme weather events

With the recent devastating floods in Pakistan, what is the impact of climate change on the United States' national security? During today's OnPoint, Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and director of the science and impacts program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, discusses the link between national security and climate change. He also addresses how lawmakers should use the series of recent extreme weather events to shape climate policy.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Jay, it's great to have you back on the show.

Jay Gulledge: It's great to be here again.

Monica Trauzzi: Jay, the link between national security and global warming has been getting a lot of play recently as a result of the devastating floods in Pakistan. Pakistan is seen as a vulnerable nation that could become even more vulnerable as a result of climate change. So, explain how we link national security, the national security of the U.S. and an event like the floods in Pakistan.

Jay Gulledge: Well, this, unfortunately, is a really strong illustration of this problem. My colleagues in the national security community tell me that Pakistan, first of all, is a key ally in the U.S. effort to squelch international terrorism and that it is also a relatively weak nation with a government that has credibility problems with its population. And, at this time, they're having their worst environmental catastrophe ever and one of the hardest hit places in Pakistan is the Swat Valley in the North where the Taliban has had a strong hold. Pakistan put a lot of effort and expended a lot of human capital to oust the Taliban from that area months ago. And now, because it's very hard hit by the flooding, the government can't get in there to support people, provide food and water and shelter. This is an opportunity for extremists in that area to fill that void and try to compete for the hearts and minds of the people there, so it's a bad situation for the credibility of the government.

Monica Trauzzi: So, basically, a group like al-Qaida could become stronger as a result of events like the one we're seeing in Pakistan?

Jay Gulledge: Yeah and Taliban is directly involved in this situation.

Monica Trauzzi: Will the floods in Pakistan have an impact on the international climate discussions? Will we see developing nations asking for more money, more support, but the developed countries maintaining their line on the political aspects of it?

Jay Gulledge: That's very hard to know. This is a really, really extreme event, so one would hope that it would get some attention. It's actually coupled, meteorologically, with the very, very severe drought in Russia, which has decreased food production there. And, Russia, in fact, is dealing with an extremist insurgency that has connections to the Taliban and al-Qaida, so they certainly have interests there. Russia has not been a very good player in the international negotiations, so it will be interesting to see if it has any effect on their thinking.

Monica Trauzzi: So, let's talk about the series of extreme weather events that we've been seeing over the last several months. In addition to Pakistan we've seen Russia, but also a very severe weather winter, severe temperatures this summer. And a lot of people are drawing a direct correlation between these weather events and climate change. Can we do that? Can we make that link?

Jay Gulledge: Well, let's distinguish between two things; one is a scientific conclusion and one is a policy decision about risk management. And a scientist will always tell you a single weather event cannot be connected to global warming. What we have this year is a very amazing string of severe weather events that range from droughts, wildfires to tremendous floods. We've had both in this country, in fact, this year, as well as very heavy snowfall in the winter, which is also consistent with global warming. And what really matters, from a scientific perspective, is that this fits a much longer multi-decadal trend in more extreme rainfall and more extreme drought over the past 50 years. That has been connected to global warming and this is consistent with that. We also have the hottest summer on record in the northern hemisphere, that's consistent with decades of global warming and we have very high years, we have more extreme events.

Monica Trauzzi: So you think government need to be managing risk through policy?

Jay Gulledge: Correct, correct. So you take, you know, the scientists will hem and haw. They'll say, yeah, well, it really fits the strong pattern and a policymaker has to decide that there is risk here and we have to address it.

Monica Trauzzi: So, some would say that we're just having a crazy weather year.

Jay Gulledge: Some are saying that, yes, and we do have crazy weather years. We've been having more and more of them and it's consistent with global warming.

Monica Trauzzi: One of the headlines we saw in early August, before the Senate left for recess, was with temperatures soaring the Senate is leaving town without passing any new legislation. Is that a fair headline, trying to sort of link climate change, the lack of action on climate with the weather events that we were seeing?

Jay Gulledge: It is in this context of risk management and here's why. It doesn't matter whether or not these particular events are related to global warming. What they are doing is they are revealing our vulnerabilities and the risks that we run from what we know is going to happen as a result of climate change. Climate change is just getting started. It's going to be worse in the future. These are the types of events, the drought in Russia, the floods in Pakistan, the floods in Tennessee in the United States this year. We will see more of those. This is clearly what the science is saying, so it is fair to link the risks that are being revealed by these events to the need to act on climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you think there are certain countries that are holding out on taking action on climate because they will actually benefit from something like warmer temperatures?

Jay Gulledge: Well, there has been this narrative for years and it's been legitimized by scientists and by the WMO and the IPCC where you take a very simplistic analysis where rich, cold nations have longer growing seasons and less need to use heating fuel. And maybe the Arctic opens up and Russia gets access to oil, we get rich, right? And there is this narrative that it's very simplistic and it looks at a very few simple indicators, but then it doesn't look at things like what happens if the event that's happening in Russia becomes commonplace in a couple of decades and they just can't produce very much wheat anymore. They're one of the major wheat suppliers in the world. The U.S. could suffer similar circumstances and that would be the worst thing, because we supply the largest amount of grain to the global market. So, once you start looking at how extreme events, and that's what is going to happen most quickly as a result of climate change, really take hold of our economies it's just not clear that you have these clear-cut winners because of climate change. I don't think that that's a good assessment.

Monica Trauzzi: Some would argue that the Senate's recent failure on climate, their lack of action on climate this year marks the end of cap and trade. Do you see that as where we're going, no more cap and trade, possibly looking at another option? And, from a scientific standpoint, what are the other options for policymakers?

Jay Gulledge: Yeah, I can't speak to what particular options they might choose, but what's clear from a scientific perspective is that a workable option will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a very large amount over the next several decades to near zero by the end of this century. And, in addition to that, because we're not avoiding climate change completely even if we accomplish those reductions, we have to have measures that will invest in new infrastructure to deal with climate changes. And infrastructure includes human infrastructure as well, emergency response systems, more resilience in our cities, our coastlines and our agricultural systems, etc. So, I can't speak to the specific policies, but whatever they are, those are the things they need to accomplish.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Jay Gulledge: Thanks.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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