Not Cool Ep 7: Lindsay Getschel on climate change and national security

The impacts of the climate crisis don’t stop at rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Episode 7 of Not Cool covers the national security implications of the changing climate, from the economic fallout to the uptick in human migration. Ariel is joined by Lindsay Getschel, a national security and climate change researcher who briefed the UN Security Council this year on these threats. Lindsay also discusses how hard-hit communities are adapting, why UN involvement is important, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • Threat multipliers
  • Economic impacts of climate change
  • Impacts of climate change on migration
  • The importance of UN involvement
  • Ecosystem-based adaptation
  • Action individuals can take

References discussed include:

Climate change will directly exacerbate underlying insecurities, which can then have an impact on the overall stability of a community or a country.

~ Lindsay Getschel

Ariel Conn: Welcome to Episode 7 of Not Cool, a climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. Today we’re looking at climate change as a threat multiplier, and how the crisis could lead to global instability. I’m joined by Lindsay Getschel who will be talking about her involvement with the UN security council, her work looking at specific security threats that have been exacerbated by climate change in the Caribbean, the issue of climate change and international security more broadly, and why she’s a strong advocate for building youth engagement around the climate crisis. I’ll note that this interview was recorded earlier this summer before Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas.

Lindsay was previously a researcher at the Stimson Center, which is a global security thinktank in Washington DC, where she examined how climate change impacts national security and exacerbates economic insecurity, food insecurity, and instability in vulnerable countries. In January, she briefed the UN Security Council on the security implications of climate change and what the Security Council can do to address these risks.

Lindsay, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lindsay Getschel: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be on.

Ariel Conn: I’m a little torn because I want to dive right in and start asking about climate change as a threat to national security, but to do that, I think it really helps to understand threat multipliers. So let’s start with that. Could you explain what a threat multiplier is?

Lindsay Getschel: Climate change is a national security threat because of its direct impacts on economic security, food security of vulnerable places, and how that therefore contributes to instability or conflict in places that are already vulnerable. As an example: in vulnerable places where underlying insecurities already exist — so, these are insecurities like unemployment, poverty, food insecurity — where these insecurities already exist, climate change tends to — or will, and already has — exacerbate these insecurities. 

In other words, in places that are dependent on agriculture, for example, climate change will increase food insecurity as droughts damage local harvests. This will also impact economic insecurity as people who rely on agriculture for livelihoods in their local economy, as drought impacts those places, that will increase their food insecurity and economic insecurity. As these insecurities worsen as a result of climate change, it’ll make places more vulnerable to conflict and instability. 

And so that’s what it means to be a threat multiplier. Climate change will directly exacerbate underlying insecurities, which can then have an impact on the overall stability of a community or a country. So, while climate change does not directly cause conflict, what it means to be a threat multiplier is that it will have direct and indirect effects on underlying issues — food security, economic security, people’s livelihoods, migration — and that those will then contribute to instability. So that’s what it means to multiply underlying issues and underlying threats that can lead to conflict and instability.

Ariel Conn: Okay. You spoke about this to the UN Security Council. And one of the comments you gave in that statement that I thought summed things up nicely is you said, “When local government cannot provide basic services to their people, the result is displacement, poverty, political instability, and violence.” I guess one of the first questions I have for you there is: are we already seeing this? Are there examples that we can look to now where we’re already seeing this instability?

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah, unfortunately, there already are a couple of examples that I can point to. One that I actually spent some time studying when I was at the London School of Economics is the impact of climate change on the conflict in Syria. Beginning in 2006, Syria experienced a prolonged and harsh drought, which drove rural populations that depended on agriculture and were now seeing their livelihoods impacted by drought — those rural populations then moved to urban centers in Syria in search of new opportunities, employment, and jobs.

So this influx of people to cities exacerbated existing issues in cities, like poverty, overcrowding, unemployment. This is pointed to as one factor of many factors, obviously, that eventually contributed to the 2011 Arab Spring protest, which then led to the conflict in Syria.

And actually, interestingly enough, the US’s Fourth National Climate Assessment — which was actually released this past November in 2018 — was actually put out by the US government, and linked climate change and its impacts on the 2010 drought in Egypt, which tripled bread prices and contributed to unrest — that was linked to the 2011 protests in Egypt as well. This Fourth National Climate Assessment also linked drought in Somalia to people joining local armed groups there, further contributing to unrest. There are several examples that show this connection between climate change and insecurity, instability, and conflict.

The Department of Defense in the US, as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, is actually required to assess the impact of climate change on US military installments and the impact on national security in the US. And former Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said in his confirmation hearings that climate change impacts stability in areas where US troops are operating in. So clearly, this is a recognized issue, even in the US government and especially in the US defense community, that this is an issue, and there are impacts that we’re already seeing on instability and conflict in many places in the world.

Ariel Conn: So one of the things that I find interesting and concerning: when you first started explaining this, you talk about the vulnerable regions, but — and I think this is where this becomes a threat multiplier — it’s clear that when we start looking at these examples, these problems that are happening in vulnerable regions quickly become relatively global issues. What sort of impact would we expect in some of these wealthier, more stable countries? Even if the worst is hitting these more vulnerable countries, how is this impacting the world?

Lindsay Getschel: You know, we’re extremely globalized now. Our economies all are interrelated. And what happens in one place may seem distant, but it actually has direct impacts on what’s going on in the US or in other wealthier countries around the world. Just in terms of national security, as seen in the Syrian conflict, that obviously had issues related to national security around the world, both in terms of the terrorist threat of ISIS and then direct military involvement by Russia, the US being involved. So clearly, it has military impacts on places around the world, even though the conflict may not be happening in the US. It might be happening elsewhere, but obviously what happens in one place has impacts elsewhere.

But then also, there’s the issue of migration, which clearly has impacts on people leaving these war-torn places and migrating to places in Europe. And even in the US, closer to home, a World Food Report, actually, in 2017 showed that consecutive years of drought in Central America — in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador — impacted food security there and actually contributed to migration from these places, which clearly has an impact on the US and the current immigration debates that are ongoing right now. So clearly, even though these issues are impacting other countries, it’s not just happening in a vacuum. It has effects on migration, and conflict, and national security for countries around the world.

Ariel Conn: I want to move to some of the research you’ve done, I believe, with the Stimson Center looking at the Caribbean. Can you talk about what the research was that you did and what the security threats are that you found?

Lindsay Getschel: We were actually conducting a really interesting project — it’s an ongoing project — examining the impact of climate change and other ocean-related risks, such as illegal fishing and foreign fishing, on the local security of cities, specifically looking at coastal urban centers since coastal urban centers are at this intersection of both the ocean-related impacts of climate change like sea level rise, extreme weather events like hurricanes, as well as the land-based effects of climate change — such as drought, which drives migration to urban centers, many of which are located on the coast.

And so, we’ve started this project looking at the Caribbean as our pilot project. We wanted to pick a location and a region that was easier to test our methodology in: so, fairly available and accessible data that we could pull out and look at and be able to actually test this before bringing it to places like, say, East Africa, which is the next phase of this project, where data availability might be slightly more difficult to get. What we’re doing in the Caribbean, and what we’ll eventually be expanding to East Africa, is we’re developing this climate and ocean risk vulnerability index, which will quantify the levels of vulnerability in ten different risk categories that these places are experiencing. The index looks at a variety of social and economic risks; geographic, physical risk; and then the actual impact of climate change — have they experienced increased storms or increased drought, changes in precipitation?

We actually conducted some field research in Kingston, Jamaica and Castries, Saint Lucia, which are the two target locations that we were looking at. And so we went down to the Caribbean in May and met with stakeholders — policy makers, people in the government in both Jamaica and Saint Lucia, and then industry stakeholders, people in the tourism industry, agriculture industry, fishing industry — to get a sense of what was actually happening on the ground. Because there’s only so much you can read about doing open source research. It’s really important to actually go there and listen to people to learn about what’s happening to their countries and what they’re experiencing.

Doing that, what was really interesting in terms of the insecurities and security threats that they’re experiencing and foresee that they’ll experience in the future: a lot of it is related to economic security, especially, just as one example, looking at Saint Lucia. Going there, you really realize how much their economy relies, both directly and indirectly, very much on the tourism industry. When you go there and you see how much — it’s a very small island, so if they’re hit by a hurricane like Hurricane Irma or Maria that hit Puerto Rico — if a similar hurricane hit Saint Lucia or some of the other small countries on the eastern side of the Caribbean, how much that would hurt their tourism economy and how that would therefore have ripple effects throughout their economy, and their agriculture industry, or their lodging industry, and transportation sector. It’s all linked together. That was really interesting to see that type of security threat and then the impact that climate change would have on the livelihoods of people living there, and therefore the overall economic security of the country itself.

Ariel Conn: You’ve spoken to the UN and written about this: that you believe it’s important for the UN to adopt a resolution that recognizes climate change as a security threat. I was hoping we could step back from some of the specific issues and just talk about why you think it’s so important for the UN to be involved in this, and what you think they should do.

Lindsay Getschel: The UN, why it’s important for them to adopt a resolution that recognizes climate change as a security threat: that would be a call to action that the Security Council recognizes this as an important threat and a threat that’s important enough to actually have a resolution made that the members of the Security Council would all have to vote on and adopt. And so what I spoke about at the UN was that it’s important to adopt this resolution and then have the UN peacekeeping missions and political missions actually conduct assessments on how climate change impacts the communities where they have these missions.

Why it’s important for the UN to do this — why not the US or a specific country or an aid organization? The UN has a unique presence around the world. It’s involved in almost every conflict situation, whether it be a full on peacekeeping mission or a Secretary General special envoy or a political mission there. So, they have influence, and they have presence in many different areas of the world that would be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And so if the Security Council adopted a resolution that recognized the threat of climate change to global security and then conducted assessments on how climate change impacted the security of places where they have peacekeeping missions, political missions, and special envoys, that would actually do a lot to better understanding the threat of climate change around the world since the UN has such a global presence and a presence in so many vulnerable areas. That would be a really important step to both understanding the risks and then actually taking action to build resilience and help these countries adapt and be prepared for the impacts of climate change.

Ariel Conn: I believe you spoke in January of 2019. Is that correct?

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah.

Ariel Conn: And it’s now summer of 2019. What has the UN done, if anything, since then?

Lindsay Getschel: I know that they haven’t adopted the resolution yet, unfortunately. Hopefully, they’ll do more than just having continued debates. While that’s important — like the debate I was involved in, and they’ve had many past debates on climate change as well, open debates in the Security Council about the impacts of climate change on security — I’m hoping that in the next few months, they’ll actually take action on it, or however long it takes them to do that.

Ariel Conn: Yeah, I understand how slow they can work. Let’s go back to the Caribbean again. Tell me about some of the solutions that you did see implemented there.

Lindsay Getschel: Both Jamaica and Saint Lucia are already undergoing a lot of really interesting resiliency building projects, both within the government as well as local nonprofit organizations. Nature Conservancy is undertaking an interesting project in Jamaica about ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. So that’s assessing how ecosystems like, say,  mangroves and coral reefs are both vulnerable to the impact of climate change, but also how they can be used to build resilience. There’s a lot of interesting work going on in both countries and throughout the Caribbean. They recognize that there’s the threat of climate change. And they recognize that they need to adapt to it and build resilience to it, to avoid or at least lessen the impact of the long-term impacts of climate change, like sea level rise and whatnot.

I know I referenced in my remarks at the Security Council of a young man in Saint Lucia who is actually taking — there’s this — going back a step — the Caribbean, especially some of the eastern Caribbean countries, are experiencing an influx in a seaweed called sargassum, which has been pointed to that these influxes of sargassum are linked to climate change because of the changes in ocean currents that are now pushing this from the open seas towards these islands and inland.

This sargassum impacts local fishing, both when fishers try to bring their boats into dock and to land their catches. Their motors get caught up in the seaweed, and it damages their boats; It drives away fish. It’s also not a very pretty seaweed. It’s brown, and it smells really, really bad when it washes up on beach and dries. So, that obviously hurts the tourism industry.

This young man in Saint Lucia, he actually has developed, I believe it’s a plant tonic fertilizer that uses the sargassum to actually benefit the agriculture industry and local gardening, local agriculture, in Saint Lucia. So there are really innovative solutions happening in these countries that are really interesting and actually making the best out of a situation and turning that into something that benefits the community.

Ariel Conn: That’s awesome. You’ve been advocating more broadly to get young people involved in this issue, coming up with these types of innovations and just getting more involved. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you think it’s so important for younger generations to be involved.

Lindsay Getschel: I mean, I think you’re already seeing this with the school strikes that are happening around the world advocating for action on climate change. So I think young people are really important to call attention to this issue and to stand up and say, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. While we may not be experiencing the worst effects right now — we are still experiencing effects right now — but the worst of it will come in 20, 30 years. And that’s when we as young people, we’re going to be affected by that. And future generations will be affected by that. So, that’s why we need to take action now. 

So I think young people are currently making their voices heard on this issue, and I think that is drawing attention to the importance of addressing climate change. And so I think more drawing attention to this issue is really important. And I think young people have a particularly important stake in this, in that, you know, we’re the ones that will be affected by this, 20, 30, 50, even 100 years down the road. And so that’s why we have this unique voice that we can bring to the table and drive action and push policy makers to take this issue seriously.

Ariel Conn: You gave this great example of the young man in Saint Lucia who came up with a really innovative solution to a problem. But obviously, not everybody is going to have these great innovative solutions. What do you want to see more young people just generally doing? What do you think would be most helpful?

Lindsay Getschel: Well, I think the easiest thing that every young person over the age of 18 can do, at least in the US, is vote. That’s one of the most impactful and one of the simplest ways to have your voice heard. If young people recognize the importance of voting, not only to address other issues, but this is a major issue and I’m sure will be a major issue in the US 2020 general elections, but all over the world as well. So I think voting is one of the most important ways for young people to have their voices heard without having to protest and do all this other really, really great stuff — which is also extremely important, and young people should definitely be involved with that — but if nothing else, voting is one of the most important ways to drive action on this issue.

Ariel Conn: All right. Is there anything else that you think is important for young and older people alike to be aware of that we didn’t get into, like work you’ve done that you want to discuss?

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah. So I think one of the most important things that everyone can do is to just educate themselves on the issue. I know so many times, there’s a lot of misinformation about what the impacts of climate change are, disagreement about whether climate change actually exists. I know that’s a highly politicized issue. So I think educating both older generations, especially on the impacts of climate change, and how, while here in the US we may be experiencing wildfires in California or droughts in the Midwest and flooding in the Midwest, how all of these are connected to the larger global climate; and how, while we may not be experiencing instability and conflict that may result in other countries as an indirect impact of climate change, it’s all connected.

One part of the world that’s affected by climate change — this will all largely impact us in the US and other countries. I think being educated about what the impacts of climate change are and how they impact our communities — not only in terms of the weather we’re experiencing, but the larger impact on our jobs, our food, and other countries, and how that impacts migration and instability — educating ourselves on how it’s all connected, I think that would be really, really helpful, and getting a better understanding of the issue and the scope of the issue and the impact that the issue will have across the world for many, many years.

Ariel Conn: Agreed. That’s one of the reasons that we’re trying to do this. That’s a really great point. So then I think my final question for you is: are you hopeful?

Lindsay Getschel: That’s a good question. Sometimes it depends on the day, to be honest. When I see the climate strikes happening throughout the world that are being led by young people, that really makes me hopeful about how young people really do care about this issue. In a few years, hopefully more of us will be voting, and more of us will be involved in government, being able to push action. So that sort of stuff makes me very hopeful.

But of course, there’s always other days when you hear about, you know, some people who don’t even believe that climate change is happening. And that’s not good. 

But in general I would say I’m hopeful more days than I’m not. I think the debate is shifting, and more and more people are recognizing the impacts of climate change, both on their own local communities and the impact that it’ll have around the world. I think more and more people are getting educated; More and more people are voting. And if that trend continues, which I hope it will, then I’ll stay hopeful.

Ariel Conn: Okay, excellent. Well, thank you so much. It was really great to hear from you.

Lindsay Getschel: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m so glad that you’re making these podcasts about this issue and doing exactly this, educating people about why it’s important.

Ariel Conn: Excellent. Thank you.

Next week, episode 8 of the Not Cool climate podcast will go live during the UN Climate Summit in New York City. So we’ll be joined by the Mayor of Boulder, Suzanne Jones, as she talks about the impacts climate change will have on municipalities, the programs and policies towns and cities can implement, and the federal policies that local governments need in order to take care of their communities.

Suzanne Jones: going greener is also often a very smart approach economically, especially over the long term. Climate change is going to hit conservative communities as much as it’s going to hit progressive communities. And most municipalities aren’t going to be able to afford the impacts. So we are all in this together. 

Ariel Conn: Join us on September 24th for more about the important role of local governments and communities in addressing the climate crisis. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and leave a good review. And join the discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.