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On Climate Security

by Hannah Teicher
April 17, 2019
This interview was originally published May 31, 2018 in our Urban Planning issue.
This interview with Hannah M. Teicher, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

How did the path you're on now begin? 

By 2014, things had transitioned in the sustainability field towards an emphasis on climate change. I did a project looking at how the real estate industry in Boston was adapting, or if they were, because it seemed like city governments weren't doing enough. And it seemed like real estate companies should have major vested interest in doing something.

They seemed to be doing something, but still just the bare minimum, the low hanging fruit, and mostly disaster response or disaster preparedness. 

I was lucky to see an ad for the Dutch Dialogues in Norfolk, Virginia. 

Why is it called the Dutch Dialogues? 

Whenever there's flooding anywhere people look at the Dutch—

bringing Dutch experts to U.S. cities. It was started in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina by a big architecture and urban planning firm down there, Waggonner and Ball, that has led flood infrastructure projects since then. They had been looking at the Dutch example, and began this workshop process to bring Dutch and local experts together. To think about how you could address flooding in a more innovative and integrated way— and a way that wasn't necessarily typical of American design. 

They replicated the process in Norfolk, because Norfolk is also one of the cities on the East Coast that is very vulnerable to sea-level rise. I went and it was a really interesting process. I was somewhat critical of the design approach, it was a little bit facile and convenient at times.

Dutch people coming in and drawing plans with canals. It's like hm, that's not really gonna happen here. 


It's not that easy to turn a street into a canal.

I hadn’t been aware of the huge naval presence in Norfolk. There were some members of the military there talking about how if the community doesn't adequately adapt, then the military might have to leave. I thought that was a pretty interesting threat on top of sea-level rise.

So that's what really got me interested in the intersection of the defense presence and climate change. That's how I came to the topic I'm looking at in my dissertation. 

Which is? 

Urban defense collaborations for adaptation to climate change. 

So, the Department of Defense and climate change. 

Yeah. It's a tricky topic because I'm always concerned that people will see me as somehow being pro-military by looking at this but that's - 

The idea that studying the military is in any way advocating for the military is ridiculous. 

Ok, they are a hugely powerful institution in American society and they have a huge amount of money at their disposal. I wondered to what extent that could be a resource, and whether communities could leverage a military presence for adaptation.

And what's the conclusion been? 

So far, I think there's a qualifying yes. It's one avenue that cities can take. New York City has Wall Street, other cities have other resources. This is one way some smaller cities, secondary and tertiary cities, might be able to get access to more dollars and federal resources. In Norfolk right now, there are several joint planning processes going on between multiple bases and municipalities that seem promising. They're actually sponsored by the Office of Economic Adjustment, which now appears to be on the chopping block. One of these vestiges of the welfare state, and Republicans have gotten hip to that. They're like, oh we can ax that too. 

Does the DOD have a line item in the budget for environmental research? 

No, not at all.

Though, what I've heard is there is an incredible amount of environmental expertise in the DOD.

If anything, what they do is mainstream environmental and climate efforts into their larger codes and plans. That seems to be a way to make it more neutral, non-political, and less vulnerable to being axed. 

The perspective I tend to hear is they're concerned about any and every threat. Clearly, climate change is a threat, sea-level rise, drought, whatever climate impacts. They're all a threat. They're going to be aware of those and plan for those.

And they don't need to get into the climate politics to address that. 

What defines the community, and what is the difference between, let's say, the physical community adjacent to Norfolk, and someone's individual mission to be a leader in climate change adaptation? 

When I say community I'm using it very loosely, and not how it's always used in planning.

I'm not really talking grassroots efforts. I'm talking about urban leadership.

I'm talking about what city elites are doing. And they seem to be the ones championing this. For obvious reasons, they have the power and the resources and the networks to do things.

But those efforts won't get where they want to go without larger, systemic support?

Without federal support. Right now, especially with us withdrawing from Paris, there's this huge move to want to say that cities are the answer, and cities can do it on their own. But cities don't have the resources for this scale of infrastructure. Whether it's gray infrastructure or green infrastructure, it requires a huge amount of money, and cities don't have that. That's why they need federal resources. 

I do look to the Dutch model and other European models in terms of more comprehensive spatial planning, where it's not this fragmented effort.

If you built a sea-wall one place, that just pushes the water somewhere else.

We need comprehensive spatial planning, though I can't foresee that happening here. 

The spatial planning toolkit seems to have been born out of the Army Corps and looking at nature as a threat. Is pushing adaptation out of the DOD furthering one idea that might actually be maladaptive? 

That's always a big risk. Highly likely. The culture within the Army Corps is changing. Of course, the Army Corps is fairly de-centralized too. They are a bunch of different districts. I spoke to people in the Army Corps in the Norfolk district and there's definitely an interest there in starting to integrate these nature-based solutions. But their procedures are slow to catch up, so they have these ossified cost-benefit ratios that they use, and those don't really allow for adequate evaluation of what green infrastructure can do. But there is an awareness of that, and an effort to change that. 

How does the conversation between the Army Corps and the Department of Defense happen?

That’s an interesting inflection point. I see the Army Corps as potentially being this boundary organization that does work across military and civil agendas— though they try very hard to keep them separate. There have been some efforts to bridge that, because it's clear, in the case of a large Naval base, that you can't just put a wall around the Naval base, or off the coast of the naval base, and then leave the rest vulnerable. It's been a really strong theme with almost everyone that I talked to. They realize there is inter-dependence between the bases and the communities, largely because of transportation. 

It's really obvious. Roads get flooded and people can't get to the base. Most people who work on the base live off the base. There have been some lobbying efforts now to try to be able to bridge that fence-line. One of them is through Army Corps means. There's also a new initiative I found out about recently called the Sea-Wall Coalition. They're trying to expand defense access roads policy to infrastructure. It already allows military spending off-base to improve roads. All of these are very long term efforts, none of the change is going to happen quickly. 

In resilience planning, you hear the rhetoric of ‘protect critical infrastructure first.’ Which can be used to justify protecting only the naval base.

All of this has a big risk. I don't think it's a necessarily good solution to open up defense spending to be able to be spent off-base, because clearly it's still going to protect certain interests, and it's not going to protect a lot more vulnerable people in the community. 

Can you talk about the idea of threat and threat-multiplying, and how climate plays into the view of threat both at home and abroad? 

2003 was the first defense report that was doing future scenario planning about climate change. It was Sherri Goodman who had been at the DOD and is now a defense analyst at the Wilson Center. She coined the term threat multiplier for climate change with the specific intent of getting political momentum behind that, and it seemed to really work. Convincing people that climate change itself wasn't going to cause conflict, but it would enhance all of the other drivers of conflict that might be out there. That's the basic thesis. 

If you already had things that might be causing migration or resource wars, then climate will just enhance that, and it is much more of a international or geo-political view rather than a domestic view. That's one thing I'm trying to bring to this. Look more at the urban, and more at the domestic interface of military, climate change, and communities. 

Some cities that are more advanced have formal relationships and procedures where they meet on a regular basis. The city and the base both let each other know about their plans. 

How do you plan on getting this message out there? 

What I'm most interested in coming out of this is how can communities partner with unlikely allies? I see the military as being one. But there are other ones. It really gets at best practices for collaboration and working together, and what can support that, and even what kind of political messages might help to do that. Climate security framing is really interesting from that perspective because it does seem to help bridge a partisan divide on climate change. It helps to reach a more conservative audience. There is also some potential for backlash against that, but from what I've been hearing on the ground, it sounds like it has been somewhat effective. 

We’re not gonna talk about who's causing this... 


We'll skip that conversation, and that's a good way of getting past it. 

Avoiding causes is kind of across the board, especially for more conservative audiences. But then the climate security angle, specifically saying that this is a threat to national security. When you have top military brass on the stage saying that, more people are going to listen than otherwise would. 

Really my message coming out of this isn't that the military is some kind of cure-all. It's just one avenue to pursue. Another avenue that could be really interesting is the large hospital systems. They're also invested in having to weather disaster, and having to be there for the long-term. There's the whole public health argument for climate change. 

I view that as potentially being very parallel.