Around the Pier: New Center Addresses National Security Implications of Environmental Change


Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has opened a new center to help the national security and foreign policy communities prepare for the potential societal effects of environmental change — from food shortages and water wars to mass migrations and civil unrest.

Already military planners, insurers and government agencies that need to take a long view of climate are devoting resources to analyze their potential liabilities due to climate change. The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, is expanding its mission on Alaska’s northern coast now that melting polar ice is making ship travel in the Arctic Circle a possibility in summer months.

The Center for Environment and National Security (CENS) will produce research that could help the national security establishment accurately forecast where and when changes in nature could trigger conflicts within or between countries. Retired Ambassador Reno Harnish III, a career diplomat who served nine tours abroad during his 33-year career with the U.S. State Department, directs the center and said one of its first functions will be a June 21-23 symposium at Scripps in which scientists and military leaders will discuss how improved climate forecasting could assist a wide range of strategic planning.

“This is a new area that has become prominent rapidly,” said Harnish. “Currently the state of our capability to forecast is in the view of many inadequate for national security decision-makers.”

Several of Harnish’s diplomatic assignments had put him at the intersection of science and diplomacy. A San Diego native, he approached UCSD leaders with an offer to use his expertise to advance renewable energy and ocean initiatives as he wound down his foreign service career. The concept evolved to include its current emphasis on national security.

Harnish’s final State Department stint was as acting assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment, and science, where he supervised many of the officials in the United States negotiating team at December’s climate talks in Copenhagen. The country needs to promote worldwide use of renewable energy and to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention it helped to create more than two decades ago, he said.

“I worked on a whole range of foreign policy issues that relate to what Scripps does in science,” Harnish said.
The June event, “Climate Change and National Security: Securing Better Forecasts,” has already garnered speaking commitments from a range of military leaders including current Oceanographer of the Navy Rear Adm. David Titley and academics from Scripps Oceanography. The discussion will cover a wide range of climate change-related issues such as the coastal security issues that are raised as an ice-free Arctic Ocean opens passage to vessel traffic and how the United States can contribute to an adequate supply of clean drinking water in coming years.

— Robert Monroe

March/April 2010

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