Northwestern University Students Produce Impressive Series on Climate Change Threats to National Security

April 15, 2011

The Beat


Journalists and news organizations looking for collaborative ways to keep alive the tradition of in-depth, public-service reporting have a new model to consider.

In January, Northwestern University’s Medill School published “Global Warning,” an investigative series by 10 of its graduate students about the ways that climate change threatens national security.

Besides the project’s own website — which also features interactive elements including a crisis-resolution game — stories from the series were published in the Washington Post and on McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington website. They were also distributed to more than 600 other newspapers by the McClatchy-Tribune news service.

News outlets around the world published articles from the series, said Josh Meyer, a former national security writer for the Los Angeles Times who is now director for education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative.


The home page of features stories all relating to the impact of climate change on national security. Photo courtesy Global-Warning.Org

“Global Warning,” funded by the McCormick Foundation, was the first annual reporting project that Medill students will produce on a subject related to national security.


Meyer told SEJournal that he and Ellen Shearer, director of Medill’s Washington program and co-director of the initiative, wanted the initial investigation to address a subject that had gone largely unexamined by journalists and would represent a public service.

He said he believes the product of the students’ three-month investigation met both criteria.

In announcing the project’s publication, Medill said that the team had “found that the nation’s security establishment is not adequately prepared for many of the environmental changes that are coming faster than predicted and that threaten to reshape demands made on the military and intelligence community. This is despite the fact that the Defense Department has called climate change a potential ‘accelerant of instability.’”

The school listed these key findings:

  • “The government lacks critical information about where and when climate changes will happen and what effect they will have on the U.S. military, intelligence and national security communities.”
  • “In a major strategy review last year, the Pentagon acknowledged the challenge that climate change poses to its operations, including a dramatically increased need for intervention in future humanitarian crises. While military branches have begun global assessments of their vulnerabilities, many security experts say the work lacks senior level support in Congress and the administration and that military service preparations are not keeping up with environmental changes.”
  • “Work by the CIA and environmental scientists during the Clinton administration was largely ignored in the years of George Bush’s presidency. Although the CIA is now spearheading intelligence assessments to determine where climate change could affect global stability, that work may be in jeopardy as Republicans skeptical of climate control take control of key congressional committees.”
  • “The nation’s satellite system, which provides the lifeblood of climate information, is in disrepair after years of inadequate funding and, in the past two decades, the intelligence community has struggled both internally and politically to respond to the challenges posed by climate change.”
  • “At home, critical infrastructure along the Gulf of Mexico is vulnerable to the stronger storms and more frequent flooding that are predicted due to climate change.”

Meyer, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times for 20 years before joining the Medill faculty, said producing the climate project was stressful work. “We wanted to make sure we had a professional-grade project for the Post and McClatchy,” he said.

He said he was especially proud that all interviews for the series were on the record.

Those interviews — more than 200 in all — included the first that any journalist had conducted with the top CIA official at the agency’s Center on Climate Change and National Security. The participating students reported from diverse locations including the Arctic Circle, Bangladesh, Peru, Washington, North Carolina and Texas. Here are some excerpts from series installments:

“Arctic military posturing heats up” by Jacquelyn Ryan

“While attention has been focused on a pending fight over Arctic resources, military and homeland security officials say the real struggle lies in trying to get the resources they need to operate in an arena that, until now, has sat vacant as a frozen ocean.

“Despite the Arctic being identified as an area of key strategic interest by the White House and Department of Defense, the United States still sits in the far north without the military and civilian resources it says it needs — and few indications that any significant ones will be forthcoming.

“Summer 2007 marked a record low of Arctic sea ice, and more open water brings with it increased human activity through newly thawed sea lanes and a freshly accessible, resource-rich seabed. Whether the activity is commercial, leisure, or foreign militaries, such activity requires a U.S. presence and capability that officials say simply isn’t there.”

“Bases at risk” (interactive feature) by Sarah Chacko

“The Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review cites 30 U.S military bases and facilities as being at risk of rising sea levels, though others say it’s a much higher number. Military officials have declined to release the unclassified list. A $5 million sea level rise study is under way at five installations, through the Defense Department’s environmental research agency. Final results are expected in 2014.”

“U.S. military grasps effects of the rising tide” by Malathi Nayak

“Climate change is fast becoming [a security threat], according to U.S. and Bangladeshi officials, who have concluded it will help create new conflict hotspots around the world and heighten the tensions in existing ones — and impact the national security of the United States in the process. Moreover, climate change could overstress the U.S. military by creating frequent and intensified disasters and humanitarian crises to which it would have to respond.

“Nowhere is that potential chain of events more worrisome than in Bangladesh, a country strategically sandwiched between rising superpowers China and India, and which also acts as a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia.

“Already, Bangladesh is beset by extreme poverty, overcrowding and flooding that frequently render large numbers of people homeless. The Muslim-majority country also has had problems with Islamist radicalization.”

“Disease: A top U.S. security threat” by Jessica Q. Chen

“U.S. intelligence officials said the spread of disease is one of their top four climate change-related security concerns, along with food and water scarcity and the impact of extreme weather on domestic infrastructure. Outbreaks can destabilize foreign countries, especially developing nations, overtax the U.S. military and undermine social cohesion and the economy at home.

“In the coming decades, more heat, humidity and rainfall will allow mosquitoes, ticks, parasites and other tropical and subtropical disease vectors to spread into new areas where people have not built up any resistance to them, the intelligence and health officials said. Other environmental changes can spawn new infectious diseases that may be undetectable, causing new concerns, they said.”

“Houston oil infrastructure exposed to storms” by Sonja Elmquist

“If [Hurricane] Ike had been a direct hit on the channel, refineries would have been flooded with seawater despite 16-foot fortifications, likely requiring months of repairs and prolonging supply disruptions, according to analysis by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at RiceUniversity.

“Experts say that the nation can’t count on luck alone to protect the Gulf region from future storms made more damaging due to the effects of climate change.

“Climate scientists predict that current trends — rising sea levels, harder rainfalls and stronger hurricanes fueled by warmer oceans — will accelerate in coming years to hammer the Gulf Coast’s oil and chemical infrastructure. As sea level rises, floods and storm runoff will push farther inland, inundating previously safe areas and keeping some flooded areas underwater longer.”

“Our man in the greenhouse: Why the CIA is spying on a changing climate” by Charles Mead and Annie Snider

“As intelligence officials assess key components of state stability … they are realizing that the norms they had been operating with — like predictable river flows and crop yields —are shifting.

“But the U.S. government is ill-prepared to act on changes that are coming faster than anticipated and threaten to bring instability to places of U.S. national interest, according to interviews with several dozen current and former officials and outside experts, and a review of two decades’ worth of government reports. Climate projections lack critical detail, they say, and information about how people react to changes — for instance, by migrating — is sparse. Military brass say they don’t yet have the intelligence they need in order to act.”

“Losing the Andes glaciers” by Heather Somerville

“Glaciers in the South American Andes are melting faster than many scientists predicted, causing a dramatic change in the region’s availability of water for drinking, irrigation and electricity. Some climate change experts estimate entire glaciers will disappear in 10 years due to rising global temperatures, threatening to create instability across the globe long before their ultimate demise.

“That’s particularly the case in Peru, where glacier melt has begun to deplete crops, displace communities, cause widespread drinking water shortages, destabilize hydroelectric power, diminish trade and affect transportation and tourism. The trend is expected to cause regional conflict, economic crises, increased crime, broken infrastructure and food insecurity.”

“Blind to the threat” by Emmarie Huetteman

“The short, unproductive life of OCO [NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory] — and the lack of a backup plan — marked another chapter in the long-running story of the nation’s teetering climate observation system. For two decades, the U.S. constellation of earth science satellites has been beset by competing priorities, shrinking budgets and mismanagement, even as intelligence and military officials express serious concerns about the national security threats posed by climate change and the need for accurate data to help assess those threats.

“In a world where the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica is intact one day and collapses into the sea the next, scientists say the need for continuous, reliable satellite observation is vital. It enables more accurate projections, allowing policymakers to decide, for example, whether to build a military base in an area that will flood as sea levels rise; more accurate data also warns the U.S. military that it may have to evacuate people before a devastating tsunami, like the one that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia in 2004.”

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of SEJournal.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2011 issue.

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