Mission Focus: Global Sustainability

The morning program included a keynote and a panel discussion about collaboration between government, industry, and academia to detect and quantify changes and map trends.


USGIF’s Mission Focus: Global Sustainability event began with a keynote from Steve S., Director for Environment and Resources and Chair of the Climate Security Advisory Council. Throughout his remarks, Steve referenced the National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change (NIE) released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in October 2021.

“When it comes to climate change, things are not looking good,” Steve said. Climate change is an issue that will affect all people regardless of countries’ borders. The world has warmed 1.1 degrees C and is expected to warm 1.5 degrees C by 2030. Disasters projected from the effects of climate change are not to be taken lightly, he said.

The first climate change risk identified by the NIE details how geopolitical tensions between countries will increase as policymakers debate better ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while current policies don’t move fast enough to make lasting impacts. Further, there is concern that countries’ current promises are not aligning with their actions. For example, Steve pointed to the projection that India will surpass China this year as the world’s most populous country. Without plans to mitigate the issues that arise with higher populations, such as increased energy demands, emissions will go up and instability may result.

Climate change will exacerbate conflicts between countries and affect developing countries more than others, Steve said. In areas of the world where conflict is already present, climate-induced migration is bound to occur. Vulnerable people governed by weak, unstable institutions will see worsening conditions brought on by droughts and famines caused by a lack of water and other resources. Another area of concern Steve discussed is the geopolitical environment in the Arctic, where Russia has a geographic advantage over other Arctic states. As tension grows, so does the potential for conflict.

In closing, Steve recognized the crucial importance of GEOINT’s role in monitoring and informing policymakers and decision-makers about the national security risks of climate change. The United States and its Intelligence Community can help other nations build climate literacy with GEOINT tools and analysis, especially those nations projected to be the most vulnerable to conflict or catastrophe caused by climate change.

Following the morning keynote, a panel of geospatial intelligence experts came together to discuss a topic at the forefront of national security: global sustainability and how GEOINT can provide positive contributions to the fight against climate change. From monitoring changes in the environment to predicting future trends, GEOINT is essential in developing effective strategies for sustainable development.

The moderator, Chris Tucker, Ph.D, Chairman of the American Geographic Society, asked the panel: How does global sustainability and the changing world affect their work?

Quentin Cummings, Climate Analytics Technical Assistance Lead from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that natural disasters are growing worse and becoming more costly. “Since 1980, the number of disasters has quadrupled.” FEMA has no land-use authority to help local municipalities and state governments decide how to make infrastructure durable and resilient against common natural disasters, he said. But FEMA does provide ratings for different risks and how to mitigate these impacts should the risks become reality.

Manuela McCabe, Image Scientist and Climate Cell Lead in the Analysis Directorate at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said her office receives requests to focus on climate security issues now more than ever. More specifically, McCabe’s office provides research on water security. As tensions around water availability increase, so does the likelihood of conflict over water scarcity.

Tucker asked the panel, as GEOINT professionals, how do we assist efforts to mitigate and build resilience to the challenges of climate change? Sean Wohltman, Global Head of Cloud Geography at Google, describes Google Earth Engine as a new and exciting tool for users to handle big data in record time. Doing so will help tasks run more swiftly and efficiently to answer overarching climate questions. Wohltman said that building this tool was an easy task, but training people on how to use it will take time and dedication.

“How will the panel accelerate collaborative projects?” asked Tucker. Chelsea Cervantes De Blois, Ph.D., Climate Security Analyst from the Department of State in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, spoke about the importance of continued collaboration with policymakers and advisors. Participating with the Climate Security Advisory Council (CSAC) and working jointly with the Intelligence Community is crucial to best supporting her office’s clients, she said. Also, standardizing definitions of data will help government, industry, and academia accelerate collaboration efforts.

As the effort to improve climate security continues, the panel agreed that collaboration between industry, government, and academia will propel security workflows. Wohltman referenced research and the use of Google Earth Engine in academic spaces as an example. Geospatial companies and agencies develop software and grant students free or less expensive licenses for academic purposes, and this is a resource that students can use not only in their research projects, but in their future careers as well.

When asked about the types of tools and datasets the panel uses in their day-to-day work, all said they rely on unclassified data and do their best to produce accessible information to the public. At FEMA, Cummings shared that most output data is required to be unclassified so the public is made aware of potential risks that may affect their homes. As an example, the City of Norfolk near Virginia Beach, Virginia, remains one of the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise in the state. Based on FEMA data outputs, over 4,000 buildings in Norfolk will be inundated by 2090. While the city has mitigation plans, this is not a simple challenge. FEMA hopes to provide as much data as possible to allow local municipalities to make proper judgements in building plans and land use.

“The end goal is to share what we are working on with a broader audience,” McCabe said. For a challenge such as climate change, it’s important to have available information to develop policies and interventions that promote sustainable development.

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