Sandia LabNews

Building a climate action toolbox

Sandia hosts national security expert for Earth Month

As the impacts of climate change become clearer, more organizations recognize that the changing climate poses threats to both national and global security. These threats and how the national security community can prepare for a warming world are the focus of Erin Sikorsky’s work as director of the Center for Climate and Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security.

Lab News recently sat down with Erin to discuss her thoughts on the national security implications of climate change and what Sandians can expect from her upcoming Earth Month presentation at Sandia.

Join the event

Sandians are invited to Erin Sikorsky’s presentation, “Analysis to action: Developing a climate security toolbox,” on Monday, April 24, at 10:30-11:30 a.m. MT in the Steve Schiff Auditorium or virtually. A Livestream link is available on the Climate Security’s Earth Day 2023 page; Environment, Safety and Health’s Earth Month page; and in Sandia Daily News.

This Earth Month event is sponsored by the National Security Speaker Series in collaboration with the Climate Speaker Series.

Image of Erin Sikorsky is Director of the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), and the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS)
Photo courtesy of Erin Sikorsky

Lab News: As an organization focused on addressing emerging national security issues, Sandia is strategically working to advance not just climate science but climate security. As an expert in this field, how do you define ‘climate security’?

Erin Sikorsky: What I think about with that definition is, what does it mean for Americans, for the United States, to live and operate in a climate-secure world? How do we keep Americans safe, not only from the hazards that climate change poses, but also the national security risks that derive from those climate hazards? Those hazards can be anything, from instability and conflict risk in other countries to geopolitical competition over access to resources.

Because there’s really nothing, frankly, in the national security and foreign policy field that isn’t touched in some way by climate change. So, I often talk about bringing a climate-change lens to foreign and security policy.

LN: You’ve written recently about the competition among international powers to set the terms for governance of border-crossing, climate-related issues. In competing for strategic leadership, how important is it for the U.S. to maintain technical science and engineering leadership?

ES: It’s absolutely critical to be a leader on the technical and engineering side of all of this. It’s really important for the United States to invest in its scientific and technical leadership on all sorts of different climate-related things, whether it’s clean-energy investments or understanding technologies for managing or intervening in the climate. To show that strategic leadership, you need to have the technical and scientific expertise behind it.

What’s really important too, is to make sure that we’re marrying that technical and scientific leadership with the security policy, understanding and apparatus. The two go, I think, hand in hand.

LN: Much of Sandia’s climate-related work involves development of accurate climate models. How important is this type of predictive capability in developing an appropriate climate-security strategy?

ES: The more accurate the models, the more granular the models, the better the input is for the national security community. What’s also really important is making sure the national security community knows how to use the models and understand the models. And again, this is a theme I will, I think, reiterate a lot. And in my talk, I address that need for partnership, and for building bridges between the scientific and the national security community.

But better models are critical, I think, especially for other parts of the world — where we don’t have as much data or understanding — that are important national security areas of concern.

LN: You mentioned clean energy. From a security perspective, are there other areas of climate-related technical development that should be prioritized?

ES: Yes. I also mentioned this earlier, and it goes by different names — geoengineering, solar radiation management, climate intervention — things we can do to keep the planet cool. I think this is a really important area of investigation and research. Not necessarily because we should deploy it; I think there are a lot of important questions around that. But certainly, we need to know more about it.

Also, understanding of early warning systems and adaptation technologies. How can communities adapt to the warming that’s already baked into the atmosphere? And other approaches like carbon-capture technologies.

We really need all the tools in our toolbox, right? There are a lot of different things we need to explore.

LN: At a conference on climate resilience last month, you talked about the need for a whole-of-government approach to climate action, with stronger partnerships between national security and science agencies. Can you say more about why that’s so important?

ES: The climate threat is so different, in many ways, from traditional national security issues where you see the state as the actor. Our international architecture — the U.N., a lot of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and our government itself — are all structured around this idea that states are the main actor and challenge. But now we’re moving into a world in which there are also what some folks call “actorless risks” from climate hazards and impacts.

And so, we need different tools. We need a different approach to be able to address that. And that includes leveraging the experience, knowledge and deep research capabilities within the U.S. federal scientific community in a way that I think haven’t quite been leveraged before by the national security community. There needs to be more interaction and partnerships and regularly ongoing communications.

Obviously, places like Sandia have a huge legacy of this. But I think it needs to be much broader than that now with climate issues. When I say whole-of-government, it’s not just the scientific community and the security community, like DOD, or the intelligence community. It’s also the Department of the Interior, right? It’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it’s the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. There are all sorts of agencies that have a role to play in managing climate hazards and sharing information and sharing ways of working so that they better understand each other.

LN: The announcement for your Sandia talk says you’ll be discussing a climate-security “toolbox,” and you used that term just a moment ago. Without giving too much away, can you share a preview of what that means?

ES: I come at this from the perspective of a former intelligence analyst. When I sat down at my desk every day to analyze risks of instability and conflict in parts of the world, what did I rely on? What kind of tools did I use? Ten years ago, when I started my job, I certainly didn’t use any tools related to climate issues. And I think that’s where it needs to change.

What tools does the average intelligence analyst or the average State Department Foreign Service officer or the DOD have when they’re engaging in the country in which they operate? How do they know who to turn to within the government to ask questions about climate risks in these places and then when they want to pursue some kind of policy option? What tools do they have that they can deploy? Do we have things we can share with allies and partners like risk-assessment tools? Do we have, you know, new technologies in clean energy or in adaptation that we can share? So that’s what I think about when I when I talk about a toolbox.