Global Change Research for a More Secure World

Earlier this month, Benjamin L. Preston, Hila Levy, Heather Tallis, Rod Schoonover and Jane Lubchenco published an opinion piece in Eos Buzz by this title. In it, they argue that orienting global change science so that it informs national security issues will help us develop interventions that promote social stability and ecological well-being.

They identify five dimensions to this task, making a compelling case for each:

  • Enhance Earth monitoring systems
  • Develop holistic knowledge systems
  • Improve reporting of nature-security links
  • Enhance strategic foresight capacity
  • Increase science coproduction and translation.

Their fuller text is compelling and merits a reading in its entirety. However, these bullet points are on their face salient and to some degree self-explanatory. Better observations – greater resolution, higher diagnostic power, etc. – are almost always a needed starting point for better security analysis. And since national security rises or falls depending on the interplay of disparate factors, disciplinary silos can’t be tolerated. But holistic insights per se are not enough. To be beneficial, they can’t remain the province of a handful of experts. Instead, the national security stakes have to be more widely shared. Forecast uncertainties often paralyze action; therefore forecast improvement will always remain a goal. And if the forecasts are to have any chance of being actionable, they must be co-produced by the decisionmakers.

The aggregated credentials and past and present affiliations that Preston et al. bring to the table lend credence and legitimacy to their recommendations. The initiatives they propose need doing – and with some urgency. It’s reassuring to know that those working this portfolio at the national level have developed this roadmap and are moving in this direction.

But here’s the thing. These thrusts will better equip our national security community (a small handful of Americans) to detect emerging threats early and identify a range of coping strategies at a high level. But by themselves they will not make our nation overall more secure. At best the United States might find itself on a treadmill, struggling to keep pace with sequential threats of likely growing complexity and import. What’s needed is a nation more resilient from the ground up.

That is where the rest of us come in – the vast majority of Americans outside the formal national security establishment. Oversimplifying (and exaggerating) greatly, a nation’s security depends on its people’s will to fight and die for it. Despotic leaders attempt to achieve this through a climate of fear: pervasive surveillance; (conditional) rewards for loyalty; brutal repression of even the slightest resistance; spinning bits of the truth and strewing heaps of propaganda to mold thought.

Democracies attempt a seemingly more fragile path to the same end. They dare to hope that fairness and truth; generous amounts of transparency and openness; hearty dialog, even countenancing open disagreement; and the ultimate (occasionally endless, bordering-on-energy-sucking) search for compromise will prove addictive – and lead to national unity and allegiance. Almost seems a contradiction in terms, but democratic nations can find that kind of freedom priceless and the process of building unity exhilarating instead of exhausting. A nation placing big bets on such freedom and matching that with sustained investments in its young people (through K-12 public education that emphasizes critical thinking and civic and ethical responsibility) will find over time that national security becomes a more manageable concern.

Finally, we must remain mindful to the reality that true national security can’t be achieved in isolation by any single country, no matter how powerful. All nations must give balanced attention and priority to the security needs and interests of others. “America-first” approaches, whether overt or tacit, are likely to prove counterproductive. The path to national security for one can be achieved only as it grows more accessible to all.

A closing reflection for this Memorial Day. Those of us who are living – those here in the United States, and the eight billion people worldwide – owe it to those who’ve fought and died for freedom over centuries – to be vigorous, courageous, and untiring in our efforts toward world security.

E pluribus unum, but on a worldwide scale.

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One Response to Global Change Research for a More Secure World

  1. Bill:

    I appreciate your bringing us this. I strongly agree with both the article and with your thoughts BUT two things are missing:
    • The authors rightly call for “more holistic knowledge systems.” What they don’t call for is research to reduce the “costs” of interdisciplinary communication. Having steeped myself over the last year in innovation/implementation research, one of the biggest impediments to success and, often, a major time sink is developing a “common language” when teams come from different disciplines. One thing that seems to have worked in the past is to have a leader who can act as a translator, but there must be other – better – ways to make this work.
    • Research on how to deal with all of the information provided. The old saw “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” definitely applies here. I see three aspects of this:
    (1) Making scientists better messengers – providing information in ways most readily usable by policy makers.
    (2) Making policy makers better “listeners” – accepting the information as presented, and curbing (as best we humans can) biases.
    (3) Helping all of us to realize that we cannot control or “manage” these complex adaptive systems, at least not in the conventional sense. We can, however, influence them. I recently wrote a paper on this relating to energy systems; the guidelines at the end are not specific to any system, i.e., applicable to the earth system as well.

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