Disaster Risk Reduction: a Task for Military, Intelligence and Diplomacy?

Chad Briggs, Strategy Director of Global Interconnections and lecturer at the American University in Kosovo, spoke with adelphi about the role of diplomacy as well as that of the intelligence and military communities in reducing disaster risk and vulnerability.

adelphi: How can we obtain an accurate assessment of environmental risks?

There is a red line between doing the assessment and prescribing policy, meaning that the intelligence community, which was one of the first groups in the US to address climate change and climate security, could give warnings but was not responsible for giving policy prescriptions. I think that is a useful distinction because often, if people want to be influential in policy, they may water down the warnings because they want to make sure there is a clear link between what they are warning and what they are able to accomplish. However, looking only at the most likely scenarios, we end up underestimating the risks. The reason for that is that we base most probabilities on historical records, but we are now outside of the historical records. We have shifted the boundary conditions of environmental systems, we find that disasters are now coming up that have never occurred before.

adelphi: What is the role of military and intelligence communities in an appropriate response to climate change and environmental risks?

Dr. Chad Briggs: What the intelligence and military communities can do is give a very realistic assessment of the vulnerable points and the critical nodes in the system. We need to focus on those critical nodes. We also need to be able to identify the early-warning signals. Specifically for disasters, two types of those can be defined: discrete disasters that require traditional responses (e.g. typhoon in the Philippines, which leads to the responsibility of the US to send in the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit) and complex disasters, in which multiple things happen simultaneously. For the latter, we need to ensure that our allies are not overwhelmed by these issues and have the confidence that they will get assistance. It is also crucial to work in advance.

adelphi: What precautionary measures can be taken to reduce disaster risk and what are the specific tasks of diplomacy?

The projects that the US Pacific Command has worked on for years are a good example. The aim of these projects is to do disaster scenarios in advance and invite all countries from across the Pacific to work together so that ahead of time all parties know who has the capabilities to respond in case of a disaster. Those discussions in advance not only help increase disaster response capabilities but they also have diplomatic benefits of countries talking to one another about technical issues. Climate security is not only about coping with destabilisation and conflicts. If we start acting ahead of time, we can create dialogue and form the structures and networks that can help prevent the conflicts. Important things can be done in advance to strengthen governance (e.g. signing transboundary water agreements, agreements for intervention in airfield use, etc.). Only the diplomatic corps or related agencies can do this. The military may have a role in warning about what might happen in the future and advise on the actions needed, but the confidence-building and the formation of diplomatic networks are the tasks of other agencies, such as the Foreign Ministries, the US State Department and so forth.

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