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.

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