Threats Without Threateners: Water, Pandemics and Climate Change as National Security Issues

The RAND Corporation has just published new research, sponsored by the Skoll Global Threats Fund, looking at pandemics, water and climate change in a national security prism.  Our interest in sponsoring this study was to understand how these three global threats, key components of our work, manifest as security issues, how they are similar and how they differ in that manifestation, and what that might mean for policy.  Here’s how RAND describes the paper:

Three issues with far-reaching causes and consequences, climate change, water scarcity, and pandemics, are examined with attention to their national security implications and impacts on the global commons. The authors aim to trigger new ways of thinking about the complex challenges of these issues. Because their effects are mostly the result of individuals and states acting out of self-interest rather than harmful intent, these three issues are treated as “threats without threateners.”

With sources and solutions that cross national and regional boundaries, multiple parties working together are more effective than unilateral action. In all three areas, risks are hard to assess, in both severity and time frame; therefore, mustering political will and coalitions for action is inherently difficult.

The paper describes four overlapping clusters of policy approaches, international negotiations, coalitions of the willing, transcommunity networking, and anti-fragile approaches, and their relative successes and limitations. Considered one of the policy approaches with the greatest potential for tackling interconnected global challenges, anti-fragile systems do not just cope with change or uncertainty; they benefit from them. They search for alternatives that attract new participants, scale to accommodate those new participants, and create positive feedback loops that enable them not only to perform as well as or better than legacy systems but to continually improve over time.

Using suggestive examples to illustrate each type of approach, the paper builds a case for the evolution of policy away from fixing problems and toward new possibilities and combinations of methods to address threats that are both chronic and acute.

It’s an interesting read, with examples of policy successes and failures in dealing with all three issues, and an innovative look at “anti-fragility” (a concept of Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable).  You can read an executive summary here, or download the full research report here.


Investors and Climate Risk

Despite continued roadblocks on real progress on climate change at the political level, there are growing signs the private sector understands the risks associated with climate variability.  The recent Investor Summit on Climate Risk and Energy Solutions at the United Nations brought together a wide range of financial players who share a deep concern that climate risks are not being appropriately priced into financial assets.  This 5-minute video provides a good overview of investor concerns, from folks who carry real credibility in the private sector. Worth watching.


Low Probability, High Consequence Events

Chatham House, a leading global think-tank based in London, has just published new research, sponsored by the Skoll Global Threats Fund, on how well the world is prepared for low probability, high consequence events.  In looking at the global challenges we face, from pandemics to climate change to nuclear proliferation and more, each presents the potential of precipitating sudden events that could cause rapid, unanticipated disruption to the global system.  The report considers recent events like the Eyjafjallajökull volcano ash cloud, the BP oil spill, and the Japanese tsunami, to draw out issues that emerge during these types of crisis event and recommendations for business and policy makers.  Some key conclusions of the report include:

  • The frequency of high-impact, low-probability (HILP) events in the last decade such as Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and the nuclear crisis and tsunami in Japan, signals the emergence of a new ‘normal’ – the beginning of a crisis trend.
  • Governments and businesses remain insufficiently prepared to manage HILP crises and shoulder their economic, social and humanitarian consequences.
  • The report sets out the economic costs of HILP events and how the impacts of a shock spread across sectors and countries in today’s globalized world.
  • The report explores two critical dimensions of the decision-making environment during a crisis – omnipresent questions of scientific and technological uncertainty, and the competing economic and political interests of key stakeholders.
  • Effective messaging and communications have never been more important in the management of high-impact events. The report draws on systemic analysis of social media to understand how the public discourse is shaped; highlights the window of opportunity to influence media messaging; and draws lessons for how the media should handle scientific uncertainties.


Reuters, the Financial Times and the Guardian all covered the report’s release.  You can also listen to one of the report’s main authors, Bernice Lee, outline its main findings in this audio file.  You can download the full report here, or an executive summary here.


Security and Climate Change

This short video, produced by the Center for American Progress, provides a nice overview of the security implications of climate change and highlights one of the key challenges of global threats in general: the inability of single countries or governments to tackle them effectively.  Worth watching.