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Environmental Change and Security Program
A production of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC
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December 18, 2014 10:54 AM PST

“Our responsibility is to call attention to the fact that there’s an invisible crisis happening,” says John Welch of Partners in Health in this week’s podcast. “Ebola is a huge issue for women’s health.”

In Liberia, where Welch recently returned from working to strengthen and open new Ebola clinics, the deadly epidemic has decimated a national health system weak from decades of conflict and chronic poverty, he says. As health infrastructure crumbles and doctors are killed, already-limited funding is being diverted to contain the virus, leaving pregnant women with fewer options than any time in recent history.

“Everyone wants to talk about Ebola, but…before this outbreak, only 50 percent of women in Liberia had access to skilled birth attendants,” he says. “The estimate is now that’s down around 30 percent.”

Similarly, says Welch, access to prenatal care and malaria treatment – 40 percent and 50 percent respectively before the crisis – has dropped to 25 percent. The crumbling of these and other services has reversed progress made by Liberia’s Ministry of Health. “All of that advancement is gone,” says Welch.

Given that across the afflicted West African countries 800,000 women are expected to deliver in the next 12 months and an estimated 1.2 million already lack access to family planning, it is essential that clinics recommence the provision of essential services as soon as possible, he says.

Safe Delivery Nearly Impossible

“Seventy percent of Ebola patients are women,” says Welch, “and that’s because they’re the caretakers; they’re the ones who stay by the side of their family member, who provide those traditional burials and try to provide for the dignity of their family.”

Women face a higher likelihood of death not only because Ebola poses serious health risks throughout the course of pregnancy (rather than just in the third trimester like most hemorrhagic fevers), but because it creates such a risk for those who could help them, says Welch.

“Safe delivery is virtually impossible at the moment. The volume of blood and amniotic fluid that a health care worker is exposed to puts them at enormous risk,” he says. That risk has fanned fears among health workers, leading to the shuttering of some clinics and leaving those that remain open severely understaffed.

Several NGOs working in Ebola-affected areas in Liberia estimate the mortality rates of infected pregnant women to be between 96 and 100 percent (the mortality rate nationwide is around 41 percent, according to recent World Health Organization estimates).

Even women who are not infected struggle to deliver safely; the symptoms of miscarriage and complications like eclampsia are nearly identical to those of Ebola, Welch says, and test results to determine if someone is infected take days – far longer than expecting mothers can survive without undergoing Caesarean sections.

There are those working to find a way to test women for Ebola more quickly, he says, but humanitarian groups and the ministries of health should also focus their energies on rebuilding the very fundamentals. “The Ebola response has to be tied to health system strengthening, so we don’t have to see this again.”

December 04, 2014 12:09 PM PST

“How does climate change affect people by age and sex, and where they live?” asks William Butz, director of coordination and outreach at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital, in this week’s podcast. “And how to do they respond? How do they adapt or fail to adapt?”

Most climate research and policy is focused on emissions rates and the physical effects of climate change, overlooking the idea of differential vulnerability – that individuals may have different levels of vulnerability to or resilience in the wake of extreme weather events based on their age, gender, location, socioeconomic status, or level of schooling, says Butz. Of these characteristics, scientists know the least about the effects of education.

To fill that gap, the Wittgenstein Center commissioned 11 studies, published in a special issue of Ecology and Society last March, that explore the relationship between educational attainment and adaptive capacity in a number of low- and middle-income countries. The Wittgenstein Center released the studies in conjunction with a larger research effort on the effect of education on countries’ population growth, public health, and development trajectories.

Each study examines a different natural disaster and how individuals, households, communities, and countries responded to it, says Butz. Together, they demonstrate that education enhances resilience on each of these scales, he explains.

Smarter Decisions

Education generally mitigates the severity of disasters based on how it affects life decisions and trajectories. In aggregate, individuals who are better educated are less likely to live in high-risk areas or rely heavily on local natural resources for their livelihoods, Butz says. They are also better able to understand disaster preparedness plans and information about risk.

Additionally, education equips people to bounce back more quickly after disasters occur, he explains. The studies demonstrate that those with more education are at lower risk for mortality and malarial infection and tend to recover more rapidly from traumatic stress. They are also less prone to adopting coping strategies that reduce human capital investment, like taking their children out of school.

As leaders try to hammer out a global climate deal at the COP-20 in Lima this week and COP-21 in Paris next year, they will debate how billions of dollars in adaptation financing should be allocated in the coming decades. Directing funding mostly towards place-specific infrastructure, as many observers expect them to, would be a mistake, Butz says.

“Our data suggests that some substantial part of that should instead be redirected to investment in human capital through schooling and through health, which moves wherever people move and is shown to increase their resilience and increase their capacity to react.”

November 19, 2014 07:23 AM PST

“When you turn on the tap in any community in Israel, water will always flow. That’s not the case in Palestine, and it’s not always the case in Jordan either,” says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, in this week’s podcast.  

Water-related disparities, including quality and quantity, lurk behind many of the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East. EcoPeace Middle East, which Bromberg says is the only organization jointly run by Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis, strives to advance peace along the Jordan River by bringing communities together around their shared water resource.

Convincing opposing leaders to work together can be difficult, he says, but a combination of top-down research and advocacy and bottom-up community engagement can create political will for change.

“Anywhere in the world – and certainly in the Middle East – no one survives without water,” Bromberg says. “So working together on water speaks to the self-interest of each side. It’s effective when we advance mutual interest and there’s mutual gain.” 

Some of the organization’s successes include the implementation of sewage treatment facilities, environmental education initiatives, and the release of fresh water into the river. In the Palestinian village of Battir, joint efforts by Israelis and Palestinians prevented the construction of an Israeli separation barrier that threatened a historic area, which later became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At the grassroots level, the Good Water Neighbors initiative promotes transboundary environmental stewardship and facilitates direct interaction between youth, adults, and government officials from 28 communities across the region. EcoPeace hopes to build on these efforts by partnering with Sister Cities International and Citizen Diplomacy Initiatives to link communities in the Middle East with counterparts in the United States.

Building trust around water is just the beginning, says Bromberg. “There’s no limitation as to where that trust can take you.”

Whatever the pretext, people-to-people interaction is critical for peacebuilding, he says.

“It’s that bottom-up effort that creates the absolutely necessary constituencies – in your communities, in our communities – to get to that signing ceremony, to get to the peace that we all so desperately desire.”

Gidon Bromberg spoke at the Wilson Center on October 17. 

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

November 06, 2014 01:48 PM PST

If you want to understand global population dynamics, you have to look past quantity and look at quality, says Wolfgang Lutz, founding director of the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital, in this week’s podcast.
The education level of a population is a critical to its future, he says, but is often overlooked in favor of focusing purely on age structure (e.g., the number of young people).
Lutz cited the case of Singapore, where rapid fertility declines accompanied an economic boom last century. It wasn’t only that there was better access to reproductive health services or declining poverty levels that created such a “demographic dividend,” it was also that young people, almost universally, had primary and secondary schooling – something very few of their parents did.
Learning Changes You
In a new book, World Population and Human Capital in the 21st Century, Lutz and colleagues from the Wittgenstein Center explore this “education effect” on population growth, finding that access to primary and secondary schooling is just as important as access to family planning and economic growth in how many children people choose to have.
Although there are a myriad of things that go into individual choices (or lack thereof) about family size, Lutz says they were able to demonstrate “functional causality” between education and fertility.
Going to school, he says, physically changes the brain, enhancing critical cognitive skills, including the ability to plan more carefully, learn from mistakes, and avoid risky behavior. These changes, coupled with the expanded employment opportunities that education opens, lead to more people living stable, healthier lives, and planning to invest more resources in fewer children.
Secondary education is particularly important for women, he explains. “It empowers women within the family and society to exercise their reproductive rights, which almost universally leads to women wanting fewer children and having fewer children.”

1 Billion Fewer People

These findings have important implications for the future, Lutz says. The age structures of many sub-Saharan African countries, which are the youngest and most rapidly growing in the world, look less intimidating when you factor in strides in educational attainment.

Despite persistent poverty in the region, there are far more children going to school than in previous generations, with substantial gains in secondary enrollment. As healthier and more educated generations move into adulthood, African countries may experience rapid declines in fertility and mortality. Lutz’s team determined that between best and worst-case scenarios of future educational expansion, there’s a difference of more than 1 billion people in accompanying population growth.

In contrast to recent projections from the UN that world population could grow to 10 to 12 billion by the end of the century, demographers from the Wittgenstein Center project that, based on expected levels of investment in education, world population will peak around 9.4 billion in 2070 and stabilize around 9 billion in 2100.

A Key Driver of Development
By building data on educational attainment into population projections, Lutz hopes to give policymakers a clearer picture of how investments in human capital will shape the future.
Human capital, built through education, “is a key driver of development, ranging from public health to economic growth, to quality of institutions and governance and democracy, and even adaptive capacity to climate change,” Lutz says. “It’s a crucial determinant of individual empowerment.”
Further, improving education is a development goal that is valid for all countries, he says, fully consistent with human rights, and already at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals and forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

“The main point is that national human resource management for sustainable development could be the main paradigm, the main rationale, of population policies in the 21st century.”

October 30, 2014 01:44 PM PDT

“We’re living in a time of unprecedented change,” says Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.

“Just in the last 50 years, our population itself has more than doubled in size, the economy grew about seven-fold during the same time, and the combination of those two…has led to about a tripling of global food consumption and water consumption and a quadrupling of fossil fuel combustion.”

Such rapid growth poses major challenges for meeting food demands in a way that sustains natural resources for future generations, says Foley in this week’s podcast.

Running Out of Land

“Agriculture is by far the biggest thing we do in the world, in terms of land area,” Foley says. Farmland takes up between 30 and 40 percent of all land on Earth. “By comparison, about one percent of the Earth’s land surface is in cities and suburbs today, yet half of us live there.”

Land isn’t the only natural resource being consumed in massive quantities for agriculture. Foley says about 70 percent of water withdrawals are used to irrigate crops and 90 percent of that is not returned to its original source. In the United States alone, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates 39 percent of all freshwater is used for crop irrigation, the majority of which evaporates or transpires in the fields.

Many crop irrigation systems, particularly spray irrigation, are inefficient, says Foley. “This is an evaporation machine, not an irrigation machine…it’s only by accident that some of that water enters the soil.”

Agriculture is also one of the largest human contributors to climate change, responsible for approximately 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, he says. “If you want to tackle economic sectors that contribute to climate change, you would have to start, every single time, with agriculture first.”

Not Only a Supply Problem

The environmental footprint of agriculture makes achieving food security a daunting challenge, but equally important are politics and poverty.

Foley says that the estimated 850 million to 1 billion people who face food insecurity today do so not because there isn’t enough food, but because of social and political barriers to accessing or affording food, such as disenfranchisement or disempowerment. “Essentially, it’s a problem of poverty and institutions, not one of agronomy.”

Institutional poverty, conflict, and even gender inequities are all social contributors to food insecurity.

Changing Consumption Patterns

“We’re certainly bumping into the limits of what our planet can comfortably do to sustain the human enterprise,” Foley says, and we have to find innovative ways to feed a growing population in a sustainable way. “Feeding the world is not optional, but neither is sustaining our planet.”

One technique Foley suggests is to increase the efficiency of agriculture. He says that even in the United States, converting plant material into animal material (e.g., feeding cows corn) yields very low returns. The conversion from grains to milk is about 40 percent, he says, which is “remarkably good.” Eggs yield about 22 percent, pork and chicken about 10, and “for every 100 calories of corn that we could eat, you’ll get about 3 on a plate of boneless beef.”

“Eighty-seven percent of the farmland in Minnesota is growing something for non-human consumption, mainly animal feed,” Foley says. Using some of that land for direct human consumption is one way to get more for less.

Changes in consumption patterns may necessarily have to follow. Greater demand for meat products means less plant-based foods will be available for human consumption. This is already a challenge and it’s getting even bigger as a global middle class emerges for this first time – driven by higher incomes  in China, India, and elsewhere – and demands a more Western, meat-heavy diet.

Feeding the world and sustaining the planet will not be easy, Foley says, but it is possible. “There’s a lot of reasons to be very optimistic about this problem,” he says. “There are huge economic and political obstacles, but there are no biological or physical ones.”

“We just have to make a choice now between the world we have today and the agriculture we’ve accepted versus the one we should have in the future as we move forward.”

Foley spoke at the Wilson Center on October 22.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

Sources: Reuters, U.S. Geological Survey World Food Program.

October 23, 2014 11:43 AM PDT

The past year brought not only an end to political instability in Madagascar but a new surge of interest in integrated population, health, and environment (PHE) development, says Caroline Savitzky of Blue Ventures in this week’s podcast.

“Madagascar has a very wide range of habitats, both terrestrial and marine, and these are all experiencing significant degradation,” says Savitzky, a community health program coordinator with the London-based NGO. Eighty percent of the flora and fauna are found nowhere else in the world and there’s “very high dependence on natural resources among local communities.”

“We’re also seeing a very significant unmet need for family planning. About three-quarters of a million women in Madagascar want to be able to plan their families but are not currently using modern methods of contraception,” Savitzky says. The country’s population is estimated to double by 2040.

Blue Ventures started working in Madagascar focused on marine conservation along the southwest coast. But in response to an overwhelming demand for health services – in some communities people had to walk the length of a marathon to reach basic care, Savitzky says – they added reproductive health services to their natural resource management and livelihood programs.

After seven years implementing this PHE approach, Savitzky says Blue Ventures has seen a five-fold increase in the number of women using contraceptives. In addition, communities have a stronger voice in managing their natural resources.

Now Blue Ventures is replicating the model further north around Belo-sur-Mer, where they are reaching 10,000 people across 10 villages. They are also exploring the feasibility of bringing health services to communities in the remote Maintirano Barren Isles.

In Andavadoaka, where Blue Ventures has been operating longest, Savitzky says they’ve begun a “realist evaluation” to learn why their approach has been successful.

We’re now looking to prove both scalability and sustainability of these models and then of course transition to complete handover of these programs, so that they’re not just community-based programs but obviously completely community-led and community-driven programs.

But most importantly, says Savitzky, Blue Ventures would like to help other organizations use the PHE approach. “We don’t see Blue Ventures as becoming this huge organization implementing PHE projects all over the place, but rather we see ourselves as being in a position to support other organizations, both large and small, that want to implement these models.”

And there seems to be an audience for such support. This summer, representatives from 35 different development and conservation organizations – including the Duke Lemur Center and Marie Stopes, which started a new PHE program this year – met in Antananarivo to form a Madagascar PHE Network. Members agreed to work together to expand the integrated approach to development by exchanging technical knowledge and jointly engaging policymakers and donors.

The new, democratically elected government – the first since 2006 – has also pledged its commitment to PHE, says Savitzky.

And most importantly, there’s great support among the communities they work with. “This is an approach to sustainable development that meets [community] needs and the way they’re felt,” she says. “People don’t live their lives in silos; PHE addresses health, it addresses conservation, and livelihoods all together.”

Savitzky spoke at the Wilson Center on October 14. 

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

October 16, 2014 10:48 AM PDT

Technological solutions, like improved equipment and logistical tools, have been trumpeted as keys to finally ending preventable maternal and child deaths. “But it’s not just technology innovation that we need; it is systems innovation,” says Dr. Harshad Sanghvi in this week’s podcast.

Improving training for health workers is one of the best investments towards improving maternal and child health, says Sanghvi, vice president of innovation and medical director of the global health NGO Jhpiego.

“One of the big challenges in our environment is not only acquiring the skills, but maintaining the skills,” he says. Through experience, Sanghvi says he’s learned that training doesn’t necessarily stick unless there’s follow-up and spot checks after the initial lesson:

Imagine a frontline health worker who doesn’t often see postpartum hemorrhage, but when postpartum hemorrhage occurs, she’s got to be ready to do it. If you haven’t practiced a skill for a while, then that skill disappears.

Giving health workers the chance to practice skills under the conditions they’re likely to be working under is also important. “Training them in big city nursing schools and midwifery schools is just not sufficient if we want them to practice in rural areas,” he says, and you can work with an entire team at once by going to where they are.

Empowered Health Workers Are More Effective 

Better tracking and health administration systems can help identify where knowledge gaps among staff have formed. In Nepal, for example, Jhpiego helped professional associations conduct a brief survey on how clinics screened for and treated preeclampsia which revealed a lack of understanding on how basic blood and protein tests can prevent the often-life threatening condition. Through phone calls, officials then monitored how workers and clinic administrators were implementing needed changes.

“Using this combined approach, this blended approach of training as well as governance, actually has a better chance of making impact than just a training approach,” says Sanghvi.

But the most effective training programs provide not only skills to health workers, but also the confidence and ability to deploy them, he says.

In Afghanistan, Jpheigo partnered with local health officials to not only strengthen curricula in midwifery schools, but provide nursery and nanny services to the many students with children and teach English and computer skills so they could access a much wider range of information after schooling.

One student from this program was able to perform a manual placenta removal – a very difficult procedure – on a patient who was bleeding heavily after labor and whose husband refused care for her three times before relenting. She did this despite knowing that failure might have cost her her life in such a patriarchal society.

“She was empowered enough to stand up to this guy,” says Sanghvi, “and she was also empowered by the knowledge and the competency and the capability and the proficiency that she had.” 

Sanghvi spoke at the Wilson Center on September 30.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

October 09, 2014 07:59 AM PDT

Leaders from around the world gathered in New York last month to discuss the replacements for the Millennium Development Goals, which expire next year. The topics included human rights, economic development, justice, disarmament, and terrorism, just to name a few. And that’s a problem, says Genevieve Maricle, policy adviser to the U.S. Ambassador at the U.S. Mission to the UN, in this week’s podcast.

“There are so many really good arguments for why thousands of issues need to be part of this agenda,” Maricle says. “That’s one reason we ended up with 169 targets and 17 goals; it’s because this isn’t an easy question.”

But focus is badly needed.

She cites an example of the current goal to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, which was kept in the next round of goals, but in the “eleventh and a half hour, [the working group] added, ‘and other communicable diseases.’ So now we are left with a target that literally takes on every disease that the world faces.”

“We as a community, both civil society and government and private sector, know how to do better than that,” she says, “and we have to hold ourselves to be more precise than that, to be more rigorous in how we set our own priorities.”

Integrating Goals?

Prioritization is instrumental to creating a development agenda that is manageable, measurable, and actionable, Maricle says. “We have to ask those questions about, ‘Who are the right actors and how do we determine an agenda that’s based on that, and how do we know that not putting something in this agenda doesn’t mean we don’t care about it?’”

Some criteria for focus were discussed at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, which concluded that goals should be limited in number, universally relevant, action-oriented, and easy to communicate. But Maricle says that there’s still more to do to make the post-2015 goals manageable. It’s critical what’s included is measurable and achievable, for example. “If we do a thorough analysis of the evidence base of it, what do we end up with as the answers for what we can actually effect change on?”

Combining goals could help make things more manageable. “Our goal isn’t to figure out which aren’t important,” Maricle says. “Our goal is to figure out how to either integrate or consolidate ideas to bring them together and collectively get to action…or it’s to figure out what we’re most effective at.”

For example, drawing from her experience working on issues of peace and governance, Maricle cites a UNESCO study that estimates more than 28 million children are not in school in countries that are emerging from conflict. “If we’re going to set a goal that says we are going to get to universal primary education, we will not get there if we don’t deal with issues of conflict and of peace,” she says. Integrating targets on peace and governance into the goal of achieving universal primary education could mean that more students are able to go to school.

A Turn to Multilateralism

Focusing also requires a discussion about which goals should be the burden of governments and which should be the responsibility of other organizations, Maricle says. “We have to be able to know that we can have another system, or a system that’s complementary to this, to flag critical issues without needing to have them be part of this.”

The concept of multilateralism is really the crux of the post-2015 development agenda, she says. “You can’t achieve any of these complex things without it being about cooperation.” This cooperation includes not only state actors, but also civil society and private sector engagement.

Ultimately, the future of multilateralism and the role of the UN will be tested by the success or failure of the post-2015 development agenda, Maricle says.

“If we can’t do this well in the next year and a half and the 15 years that follow, we will be potentially – I mean, this sounds sort of alarmist – we will potentially be calling into question what the UN is all about and what multilateralism is all about in the first place.”

Maricle spoke at the Wilson Center on September 29.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

October 01, 2014 02:24 PM PDT

When it comes to sustainable development, not all goals are created equal, says Wael Hmaidan, the director of Climate Action Network International, in this week’s podcast. Climate change “intersects everything we do,” he says, but is underrepresented in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global development agenda being drafted to replace the Millennium Development Goals next year.

When the SDG negotiation process began, “there was really no interest in climate change,” he says, “and there was a deep lack of understanding on the climate change issue and its implication for poverty and development in general.”

That is changing, and now goal 13 (of 17) calls for countries to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” But this is not enough, says Hmaidan. He argues for rephrasing goal 13, improving the targets for reaching it, and integrating climate change into other goals.

Hmaidan also fears that the climate goal could be dropped, as others wish to reduce the total number of SDGs. This would undermine the credibility of the entire system, he says. “We cannot imagine a sustainable development agenda in this time and age that doesn’t include a climate goal.”

“The Existential Issue”

Climate change is “the existential issue on the table that can affect the survival of human civilization,” says Hmaidan. And while those working on climate change policy may recognize the scope and severity of the problem, the rest of the world doesn’t. “When you go outside of the climate bubble, which is the UNFCCC and such fora, and you come to another forum, this understanding of climate change doesn’t exist.”

“To change everything, we need everyone,” he says, evoking last month’s People’s Climate March, which brought 400,000 activists to New York to urge leaders to take stronger action on climate change ahead of the UN General Assembly.

The importance of having climate change be moved from an environmental problem to become a developmental, and even an existential issue, has to be understood by governments and communities around the world – this is the only way to solve it.

Complementing the UNFCCC

Some question the inclusion of climate in the SDGs out of concern that it will interfere with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, which aims to produce a binding international agreement. But the SDGs need not conflict, says Hmaidan, and can actually complement the UNFCCC.

Unlike UNFCCC agreements, the SDGs will not be legally binding, so their effectiveness hinges on their ability to “move feelings.” Language around climate in the SDGs should eschew the “technical” and “diplomatically crafted” style of the UNFCCC, he says, and instead strive to be “inspirational and aspirational,” capturing the spirit of the climate movement. He advocates for a more strongly worded climate goal, such as, “achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”

While the SDGs themselves should be far-reaching and inspiring, Hmaidan suggests getting more specific for the targets that make up each goal. The targets for the climate goal should address issues that aren’t covered in the UNFCCC process, like low-carbon development plans and national legislation, he says, and the targets for the energy goal ("ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all") should be more concrete and ambitious to complement the climate goal.

Overall, the targets should be structured to draw out connections between climate change and other development areas, he says. “We cannot look at each goal separately; we need to look at how each of the goals interact with each other.”

The post-2015 sustainable development agenda offers a vital opportunity to build on the gains of the Millennium Development Goals, which did not include climate objectives. But in order for the SDGs to be successful, they must inspire strong, collective action against climate change, says Hmaidan. Without this, “all other goals cannot be achieved.”

Hmaidan spoke at the Wilson Center on September 29.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

September 25, 2014 01:27 PM PDT

The U.S. military has historically relied on its capacity for technological innovation to respond to new risks and crises. But, as Sharon Burke explains in this week’s podcast, the Pentagon has had to invent not only new technology, but a new role for itself in response to a changing world.
Burke, who served as the first assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to May 2014 and is now with the New America Foundation, explains that when she started working at the Pentagon 20 years ago, oil prices were low and she struggled to find space to pursue energy security. As the threats of the Cold War faded, however, the mission and role of defense agencies quickly became more complex and understandings of national security shifted.
“Is security getting our kids to school and food on the table,” asks Burke. “What prevents us from doing that? Or are you talking about military security and defense threats that require a weapon to counter?”
The Department of Defense now considers longer-term trends that can lead to instability and situations where they might be called on to respond – “systemic-level influences, where it’s gender and demographics and resources and military security all coming together,” she says.
Military leaders must ask, “What‘s that going to look like? And what do we need to live in that world? Because if we don’t start building it now, we won’t have it.”
Environmental change is among these global trends. The military’s signature strategy document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, incorporates climate change, energy security, and water, and the latest National Intelligence Strategy, released last week, includes a section on natural resources and frames climate change as a “threat multiplier.” The Department of Defense has also started to prioritize internal energy security. Burke’s former office, which she helped create, works to reduce costs and risks by managing energy use.
Adaptability a Virtue
As the forces shaping national security become more complex, so do the choices facing the military. For example, although alleviating poverty is not a military responsibility, says Burke, reconstruction teams in Afghanistan and Iraq had to confront poverty to try to stabilize the areas they worked in.
“[The military] understand[s] that all of those questions have to be asked,” she says, “it’s the ‘then what?’ that gets more complicated, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, because the truth is there’s not always a military answer to a security challenge.”
For Burke, finding the right answers also depends on a more dynamic political system.
She says she worries about a “brittle, inflexible, and rigid political system” that’s not adapting to major changes on the world stage, like climate change and demographic shifts. These attributes are critical not only to protecting the United States, but also to maintaining its leadership role in the world.
“We’ve proven to be a very resilient country ourselves, politically, over hundreds of years, but we seem to be at an unusual juncture,” she says. “Are we going to be able to continue to play that role going forward, and are we going to be able to marshal what we need to at home?”

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