Anticipating Disruptive Climate Events: A Trans-Disciplinary Problem

The climate sciences help in anticipating climate events. Various other scientific disciplines are engaged in understanding some of the many societal processes that affect exposure and vulnerability and can therefore help in estimating the disruptive capacity of future climate events. These disciplines need to be more fully engaged with the climate sciences in order to assess the disruptive potential of possible climate events. For example, demography has been particularly successful at forecasting exposures by estimating future human populations from fertility and mortality data and trends and from migration data and trends. Researchers in the development and planning fields can provide useful estimates of infrastructure development that can help with estimating the exposure of property to climate events known to be prevalent in particular areas. Forecasts of economic growth and economic well-being of populations can be useful for anticipating the degree to which extreme events will create serious disruption or suffering. Engineering analyses can estimate the ability of physical infrastructure to withstand possible extreme events. Ecological analyses of habitat change for pests and pathogens can help in foreseeing outbreaks of some human, animal, and plant diseases. There are also social scientific bases for estimating capacity and willingness to cope and respond in environmental emergencies, although some of these, such as for forecasting social capital, are at early stages of development. In addition, there is a body of research literature on the effects of the quality of disaster response on the stability of governments. We discuss these issues further in Chapter 4.


As the discussion so far makes clear, there are many plausible scenarios by which climate change, climate events, and their interactions with non-climate environmental conditions and socioeconomic and political changes might set processes in motion that create national security concerns for the United States. It is also clear that the likelihood that any specific scenario will arise is highly uncertain. This section considers strategies that the U.S. intelligence community might use to better inform national security decision makers with regard to potential risks related to climate change.

The problem might be phrased simply as one of determining which potential futures are important enough to worry about. Policy makers have limited cognitive bandwidth, so they can pay attention to only so many warnings. After some important event has occurred it is often easy in retrospect to identify the relevant precursors. Before the event, however, it is often much more difficult to separate the signal from the noise.

We reemphasize the point made in Chapter 1 that the appropriate

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