Sandia LabNews

Battling an existential threat

Sandia manager Lynn Yang leads in the fight for climate security

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CLIMATE SECURITY CHANGEMAKER — On the weekends, Lynn and her family spend time outside. Here, they’re paddling their 18.5-foot yellow canoe they call Glide on the Big River in Mendocino County, California. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Yang)

Working to address climate change is nothing new to Sandia’s Lynn Yang. She began researching climate change mitigation in graduate school and has since had a successful research career spanning biodefense, cybersecurity and critical infrastructure resilience.

Lynn is the manager of Sandia’s Systems Research and Analysis group in the Sandia California Computation and Analysis for National Security Center. The group provides national leaders with reliable, unbiased and comprehensive information on viable engineering and strategy options, and on the effectiveness, risks, benefits and potential unintended consequences of those options.

Lynn applies systems perspectives to climate challenges, pulling from her experience in risk analysis and homeland security. She helped develop the Labswide climate security strategy and remains an active leader in Sandia’s climate work, which applies a defense-in-depth approach that layers research and development in four dimensions: awareness, mitigation, adaptation and intervention.

Lynn received a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering and a master’s degree in technology and public policy, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lab News interviewed Lynn to learn more about her perspective on climate research, her layered defense approach and a “teach the teacher” theory of recruiting others to join the efforts against climate change.

Lab News: Why are you passionate about climate change?

Lynn Yang: Climate change is an existential threat. It affects all of us globally and so it’s something that we should all care about and work on, especially those of us working in national security.

I started working on climate change in graduate school, 1995 to 1997, in a technology and public policy program at MIT. This program was focused on the role of policy to inform research and development and technology development to help address global problems and improve our way of life. Back then, I researched mid-sized, coal-fired industrial boilers which produce heat for industrial processes in China’s rural areas, given their large contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. My research found that one major cause of heavy emissions had nothing to do with a technology need, but rather efficiencies. Many of these boilers were in poor repair. Straightforward measures such as maintenance to patch cracks in the chimney, where heat was being released before it could be used, could make a big difference. The solution didn’t necessarily require innovation, but instead required policy and process changes. Furthermore, boiler owners were incentivized to make these improvements because it would save cost and they could burn less coal to generate the required amount of heat.

There are many actions we can take to make gains against climate change and sometimes it’s as simple as maintaining systems already in place. We need to analyze risks and pursue all high-traction measures, from low-hanging fruit to major process, technology and policy efforts.

I started working on the issue of climate change early in my career, and then moved to a host of other national security areas like countering weapons of mass destruction, disaster management and cybersecurity. After becoming a manager, I heard about Rob Leland and Susan Altman’s effort to develop a Labs’ Climate Security Strategy and made a beeline to join that team. I’m happy to have the opportunity to work on this critical national and global security topic again.

LN: What does “climate security” mean to you?

LY: I view climate security as stability and resilience in the face of climate change. Climate change is affecting our environment, our infrastructure and our way of life, including fundamental needs and the things that make life comfortable, interesting and fun. Climate security is not just national security, it’s security around our way of life.

LN: What climate-related challenge are you most excited to work on?

LY: I’m excited to develop and execute a holistic approach to climate security. We’ve defined climate security as a layered approach across four interconnected areas of activity: awareness, mitigation, adaptation and intervention. I’m working with a team of climate researchers, scientists and innovators to make research and development advances in all four areas.

At Sandia, by utilizing our research and engineering capabilities, and relying on our systems approach to complex problems, we can make gains in all four of these areas: build awareness of climate change impacts, mitigate the highest emitters of greenhouse gases, characterize needed adaptations across the national security enterprise and critical infrastructure sectors and support governance of climate interventions. I’m excited to work with my colleagues on high-leverage, high-traction research and development to address climate change.

LN: How does your work at Sandia advance climate security?

LY: As a manager, I work through others. My job is to set priorities, create the environment and pull together people and capabilities to produce the highest impact climate security R&D. I’m fortunate to work with passionate teams who are advancing climate security in many important ways.

You may have heard of tipping points — it’s this idea of runaway problems that, if not addressed, accelerate and cannot be reined in. Methane release in the Arctic region is a potential tipping point. There is enough methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — locked up in the Arctic permafrost to completely swamp a lot of our mitigation efforts. If methane is released, according to reasonable assumptions about Arctic warming, ensuing permafrost thaw and other environmental impacts like wildfires and ground collapse could occur. So, we need better data on the Arctic methane positive feedback cycle to inform earth systems models and critical decisions like carbon budgets and investments in research and development. Sandia has sensor technologies, facilities, modeling expertise and ongoing research in the Arctic that will produce critical data and understanding on this potential tipping point.

Our team is also looking at the impacts of climate change on our critical infrastructure to identify adaptations that are needed for resilience. Sandia has a long history in critical infrastructure modeling to analyze risks arising from natural hazards or human-made threats. We are applying those capabilities to the climate change threat, to inform adaptations to operations, systems and infrastructure.

LN: What unique perspective or capabilities does Sandia bring to addressing the climate crisis?

LY: Climate change is a multi-faceted, complex issue, and many solutions and innovations that are needed for climate security require a systems approach. As a national security systems engineering and research laboratory, Sandia has much to offer. We have a history and long-standing capabilities in relevant areas such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, earth systems modeling, sensing, Arctic and geosciences, resilient energy systems, carbon capture, critical infrastructure decision support and more.

LN: What does the nation or world look like in the future if we are successful in addressing climate change?

LY: The environmental impacts of our activities and systems are an externality — these impacts are not factored into the price of goods and services. We will naturally move, and move much faster, toward climate security if we factor environmental considerations into our economic cost-benefit calculations and if we align economic and environmental incentives. This ties back to my graduate research on Chinese industrial boilers, in which we uncovered efficiencies that bolstered both economic and environmental objectives. My vision for a climate-secure world is one in which climate change and environmental considerations are measured and incorporated into the economics that drive our choices, policies and systems.

LN: What’s your vision for integrating energy equity and environmental justice into Sandia’s climate security efforts?

LY: Sandia is investing in climate security innovations that improve the stability and resilience of our critical infrastructure and our communities. That said, our nation’s existing critical infrastructure doesn’t serve our communities equitably. Just as we need to address the externality problem for the environment, we also need to address the externality problem for equity and justice, factoring equity into the economics that drive investment, requirements and policy.

This fundamental problem faces a great deal of inertia, but in the meantime, Sandia can make progress by factoring equity and justice into our own calculations, such as our techno-economic analyses that assess and inform our climate security investments in innovation. Sandia should continue our ongoing work to provide underserved and underrepresented communities, such as tribal communities, with the understanding, data, resources and tools they need for climate security.

LN: If you were trying to recruit or inspire somebody to work on the problem of climate change what would you say to them?

LY: I would say, climate change is an urgent, existential problem that requires transformational innovation, as well as a holistic approach that spans science, engineering, policy, economics and more. Within the climate security space, you will find interesting and critically important problems to work on and a passionate community with diverse and multidisciplinary perspectives, as well as strong mission orientation.

LN: How can we educate and involve more people in addressing the climate crisis?

LY: Climate security starts with awareness. We are increasingly seeing climate change effects on our day-to-day lives, whether it’s high temperatures, extreme weather events, failing infrastructure, water scarcity or other effects. I just gave a talk at Sandia’s Kids Day, where the theme was climate change. I was very happy to learn that climate change is now a standard science curriculum topic as early as elementary school. If we widely propagate understanding of climate change risks, and ways to address climate change — from changes in our individual choices and actions, to devoting a career to climate security — the hope is that climate security will naturally fold into the actions, decisions and work of current and future generations.

In graduate school, in 1996, I started a program that taught high school students how to teach others about climate change. The concept was to “teach the teacher” so we could spread the word about climate change faster. We need to inspire others through awareness and science-based information. 

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