War gaming for climate security

The United Nations secretary-general speaks in grave tones to a room packed with officials from some of the world’s largest, most powerful countries. He’s called them together, he says, to help them save their nations by saving the planet. The situation’s getting desperate: A Category 5 hurricane has reduced much of Miami to ruins and urban swamps, and millions of people in India have become “environmental refugees” after a killer cyclone swept through Bangladesh. Meanwhile, deprivation and fighting escalate in conflict zones around the globe.

Don’t worry: It’s only a war game (at least for now).

The simulation described above, set in the year 2015, was conducted last July by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based research-and-advocacy group. Called “Clout and Climate Change,” the exercise was designed to “define climate change as a national-security challenge,” as the game’s director put it, and to give policymakers a leg up on grappling with the kinds of tough decisions they might face in striving to maintain both the global environment and international stability.

Asheville Resident Andrew Jones—program director for the Vermont-based Sustainability Institute, which specializes in climate-change modeling—was there to help make those decisions seem less hypothetical. “We’re helping people deal with those questions by creating role-playing simulation environments for people to think about the future and prepare for it,” he explains. In this case, the simulation created “a setting where people play the roles of different parts of the world and negotiate both a way to avoid future problems … and think about adaptation—that is, preparing for the fact that the climate is going to be changing over the next several decades.”

Nine other organizations also participated in “Clout and Climate Change,” along with national-security officials and experts. The game’s premise was that climate change will pose “a high risk for global conflict” in four areas requiring quick, concrete action: mass migration, resource scarcity, disasters and emissions reductions. Jones’ contribution was to walk the assembled “world leaders” through a computer simulation developed by the Sustainability Institute in conjunction with MIT and Ventana Systems.

At the close of the three-day exercise, the participants inked an agreement both acknowledging the security threats stemming from environmental upheaval and pledging to aggressively reduce carbon emissions. It was an outcome that many environmentalists would like to see happen in the real world.

The take-home message, stresses Jones, is that, “Increasingly, our national security is a function of the climate. Climate change is exacerbating those things that have already been happening for a long time around the world, and bringing greater frequency of threats to our national security that are not via people but via natural events.”

“Clout and Climate Change” drove that notion home to the participants, but could such unconventional war games help shape the thinking of top real-world decision-makers?

Jones can’t say for sure, of course, but he’s quick to point out that one key participant in the exercise, who played the U.N. secretary-general delivering the do-or-die message on climate change, does have some sway in the halls of power. It was none other than John Podesta, former Clinton White House chief of staff and chair of President Barack Obama’s transition team.

Info: Center for a New American Security (www.cnas.org); Sustainability Institute (www.sustainer.org).


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About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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One thought on “War gaming for climate security

  1. bobdurivage

    Speaking of sustainability, is the current population of our planet sustainable?

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