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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 17 - Dr. Sheila Young on Climate Change

  • Published
  • By Dr. Sheila Young

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Margaret Sankey: Welcome to Wild Blue Yonder on the Air, Air University's podcast. Joining us today is Dr. Sheila Young, we're particularly excited because she is an alumna of the Air War College. And after a career in USAID, she went to the Florida Institute of Technology and recently completed a PhD in STEM Education. Dr. Young, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Sheila Young: It's my pleasure. 

Sankey: The reason we wanted to showcase your work is that earlier this year, the Government and especially the DOD have released reports that outline climate change and extreme weather, not just as a driver of conflict around the world, but as a serious threat to the physical locations of our bases in America and around the world. And Dr. Young's work, interestingly is about how local governments in Florida have made preparations and inform themselves about these challenges, and it's likely that much like our K-12 Initiatives, local commanders are going to be working in parallel with Mayors, City Councils, City Managers, who are dealing with these same challenges, flooding, storms and things like that. So we're delighted to have your insights.

Young: Thank you, I'm looking forward to it.

Sankey: You centered your study on Florida, could you tell us more about how their geography and particular vulnerabilities factored in your study? 

Young: Sure, I specifically focused on the Atlantic Coast of Florida because of the wave structure from the Atlantic Ocean, the way that hits the coastline and erodes it which is a different geographical and physical effect on the land, than what happens in the Gulf. And the Gulf, you'll have more threats from storm surge, the water just pushing slowly up into the land that affects a lot of cities and bases from flooding, but on the Atlantic Coast, it's severe erosion and hard-hitting hurricanes as well. So it's a different physical structure on the environment. I also live here, and this is where the Florida Institute Technology is located, that it's really a theme close to home for me. So that's why I selected this particular area, and I wanted to also see that there are enormous populations that the two larger cities in Florida are located along this coast, in Jacksonville and Miami. So you have two points along the coast of the north and the south, that have all of these people concentrated right next to the water as well as 12 bases, the state level and national level, military bases are located here, so a lot of people, a lot of installations, a lot of property are impacted by this location.

Sankey: One, you mentioned tourism as well, so access to the coastline and the beaches is a serious economic driver in this area too.

Young: Absolutely, the Florida is known for its beaches, and what it's happening locally is that every season, the storms come in and just scoop away the beaches leaving behind seaweed and just enormous cliffs. So what the cities are having to do in order to build back tourism, they are taking sand that has been eroded away, they're taking it from offshore, dredging offshore, and then dumping it again onto the beaches to recreate it. Now, that's only a temporary solution and it's very expensive, they have to do it about every year, that is not sustainable. At some point, we have to start thinking about retreat strategies, just moving away from the more vulnerable areas, but that is a very unpopular idea with people who think in a short-term way.

Sankey: That's a lot of intervention. Part of your study looked at what all of the built-up areas have done to the land in the ecosystem that was previously coastline and wetlands, what does all that concrete mean? 

Young: The more people you have in an area, the more concrete you're going to have. People want infrastructure, they want roads, they want buildings, they want hotels, they want restaurants, all of that. It means that it goes from a permeable area where water can seep into the ground through a park or wetland to an impermeable area, such as a building or a road or highway, and that just means that the water has to rush off and pool into areas that are undesirable, or it rushes off so quickly that it takes part of the landscape with it. These are things that are happening right now, not just here in Florida, but around the world. These are issues that not just local cities that I looked at have to deal with, but military bases around the world are dealing with. I was reading that there are over 300,000 US military installations around the world that are dealing with these issues right now. It's not just a local issue. This is a global issue, and the military has been looking at these issues for over a decade, they just haven't talked about it as much but they are definitely looking at this, the leaders are long-term planners and they look at risk, and this is definitely a serious risk.

Sankey: The core of your dissertation was a survey that was sent to local city governments in Florida's coastal counties, what sort of effects of climate change were they noticing? 

Young: They're seeing severe flooding, coastal erosion, increased heat and stress on people because as these impermeable surfaces are becoming more prevalent, they just absorb more heat and that makes people hotter, then you can imagine, the population of Florida well, there's an older population and they can't take the heat as much as others can. So you have increased heat, you have increased flooding, you have coastal erosion, another area that's happening down in Southeast Florida, is you have salt water intrusion into fresh water aquifers. So they have a serious threat to their drinking water sources down there as well, which will become a problem more globally as more of this salt water starts to leak into your fresh water sources, but those are just to name a few actual events that are happening right now and in addition to the increased frequency and intensity of storms, hurricanes that happen. And not just this area, but you have typhoons in and around Asia as well, costing billions of dollars to rectify. There are solutions to it, and slowly countries are starting to work toward that.

Sankey: It's becoming increasingly common for a local government to offer cooling centers, say to that population who doesn't have air conditioning or doesn't want to or can't afford to run it all the time, what other local options do mayors and cities have to address these kind of big issues? 

Young: Larger cities would have more access to facilities that would help people who don't have access to air conditioning, such as those cooling centers. Smaller cities don't have all the resources to set up facilities such as that. However, they can do other things such as increase the impermeable surfaces such as building more parks, improve their drainage systems, reserving lands, wetlands so that you don't build on top of them, and that allows more water to absorb into those areas and drain off into those areas, so you don't have pooling in another... In the populated areas. So those are very easy things they can do. You can also stop building along the coastline as much, I know it's a very unpopular thing, but that's where the storm surge is going to hit, and that's where the storms are going to hit the hardest, and so that's where the biggest damage to people and property is going to happen.

Sankey: You also noted that there's a huge gulf between the resources of a big city like Miami and smaller towns where you may have a population of a couple hundred people, what effort can and have the really big metropolitan areas put towards this? 

Young: The big cities definitely have more resources simply because they have more people paying taxes, so their tax base is larger. What I've seen is they tend to focus more on building more parklands, improving storm water drainage systems, trying to find alternative fresh water sources, even guarding areas for agriculture, because agriculture is starting to be threatened by salt water infusion. 

I'm on a barrier island, just a few blocks from the Atlantic coast. It's a small city and we have to depend on the larger cities to provide our fresh water, to provide our stormwater drainage services, we just have to collaborate with them. So what we're seeing in Florida especially, they have regional organizations that they're working with, regional planning institutions and regional Climate Change Compacts that they depend on to provide them with scientific information, they collaborate on ideas of what implementation measures they've had to secure their physical areas in their particular cities. So they're sharing ideas and they're building in that sense, they're building a sense of efficacy, a sense that they can do it on their own, or they can do it at least in collaboration with other cities. This comes from education theory of self-efficacy leading to collective efficacy and doing something with other organizations, I was pleased to see that the survey showed many cities are depending on these regional institutions to help them with information.

Sankey: A lot of mayors and civil servants in small towns, they've dedicated their lives to public service, but that also means that it's sometimes been decades since they've been in the education system, and a lot has changed in environmental education, really in the last couple of decades. So how do you bridge the gap and bring them into the current conversation about what's happening in these issues? 

Young: This was something I was particularly interested in looking at in my study. Although the study has its basis in the STEM Education, it's not in the formal sector of education, it's informally. We have all of these people who are leaders making policy decisions who haven't been in the formal education sector for, some of them decades, so how do we reach them with current information? Well, the first thing we need to do is find out where they get their information, so I asked the question, where do you get your scientific information? And I was pleased to see that many of them get it from scientific sources, organizations such as NOAA and NASA and the IPCC and others depend on in-house staff who come more recently from the university sector. That is a good question. We have to continue to ask that of the cities, where are they getting their information? 

They can get them from these regional organizations that I mentioned previously, where they can share information with other cities about what they're doing about what the challenges they've had. They can also get it from local universities just by asking guest speakers to come in and speak about topics. They can continue to train their in-house staff who they should depend on for more technical information, so there are many places they can get it, this gets to another question I ask. And they have to realize that there is a risk of not doing anything, and I asked what their perceived risk is about several aspects of climate change to understand how that links in and it... It showed that the greater their understanding of risk related to climate change, the more prepared they were for it in their cities. So they have to have an understanding of it and be open to it in the first place, and that the only way we can see to do that is to continue to share information with them through various sources about the risk to their cities specifically.

Sankey: Laypeople tend to not be great about judging risk, especially in the long-term. I was interested to see that your research pointed to people being more receptive if there was something right in front of them that they could see that a place that they went looked different, the wildlife were there or not there, but it also tended to skew short-term rather than long-term thinking, how do you try to get around that in policy discussions? 

Young: Well, the whole idea of being more receptive to short-term or near close by events than far events or longer term events, that's rooted in psychology. But applying it to climate change, leaders have to understand that what's affecting their local institutions is not only affecting them, but it's affecting other people, and what's happening in one part of the world, when you come to climate change, it can affect you locally as well. So education is going to help them understand that between the near and far issues helping them locally make decisions that it's going to really prepare a city to prevent it from being hit by these major climate events, you have to tie in a local event to help them understand that.

And there are ways to do that, you can point to local flooding events, you can point to increased wildfire incidences, drought, you can point to shortages in fresh water. You have to help them make those ties, and that's why it's so important for them to be linked in with scientific organizations and universities, so those people can help the cities understand the link, between what's happening globally and how it's impacting them locally. This is one of the things I'm really proud of our military about, they're good at thinking globally. And they're very good at understanding how climate issues that are happening around the world can also help affect you in the bases locally, and then we've got bases all over the world, and I'm really impressed and how the military has been able to understand that risk and react to that risk by hardening their bases, sometimes moving them to better areas and reducing their own emissions so they're not contributing to the problem in the first place. But locally, we just need to continue to educate cities to understand that risk.

Sankey: You highlight some really fascinating stuff about adult education theories. Lots of professional people know their stuff, we know the thing that we went to graduate school to do, but a lot of that education didn't really include that overlapping skillset about being able to explain it in a compelling mainstream way, what can the eggheads do to better prepare to explain our work to laypeople? 

Young: Yeah, that's a great question. And that is still relevant today. That even in many schools, at least the ones I've studied in this part of Florida, they still don't teach climate change in a comprehensive way. You'll get atmospheric chemistry taught in physics and chemistry, and you'll get some biodiversity issues taught in your ecology classes, but very rarely will you find a class that brings all of these issues together along with the policy overlay of what decisions policy makers have to make and whether they have to make choices between a health issue, an environmental issue and an economic issue. We don't have that in one place, and so students have to either get it all on their own or they just only get part of the picture with regard to that.

So what eggheads have to do is do a better job of putting together classes that bring all of those issues together. I will do a little plug for the [Air] War College, this is one thing I really appreciated about my time at the War College. We did a lot of exercises and critical thinking, where we brought in some of what we've called wicked problem solving, and we talked about the policy overlay versus local conditions versus challenges that the military and local communities would face. That's what needs to happen in cities, to train cities as well, and in academia, we need to bring in the wicked problem solving issues. We need to bring in the policy overlay with more of the physical events that are happening with the science behind it, and let students discuss that in an educated way. But let them discuss what's happening, because it's through that discussion and hearing different points of views that you start to learn more and that critical thinking starts to happen. If you're only getting one point of view, you don't have any critical thinking that's going on, so that's my plug to the War College, I appreciate that critical thinking element there when I was there.

Sankey: During those exercises, of course, I know we pushed really hard for all of our seminars to be looking at the broadest possible base of information, where can you get these good sources, how do you evaluate where you're getting information, how accurate is it, what kind of biases does it have? And I know the military is also very concerned about what is essentially kind of information campaigns and information warfare. It seems like a lot of people get their information from algorithms and they're in very compartmentalized bubbles, not just about political events, but about environmental events too. How does this reinforce people's existing biases and hinder efforts to share this kind of information as you've just described? 

Young: This is a serious issue. It's recent. Because this is when Facebook has been taken to task in front of Congress about their algorithms. This is a real issue that's happening not just in that social media aspect, but it happens all over your computer. You start to do a search in one area, and all of a sudden, you start to see ads and notices about that same thing you search for, plugged in to different web pages that you pull up or you do a search, you look at, or you “like” a topic on Facebook, and all of a sudden, you start to see more of that same kind of thing throughout your Facebook feeds, and it can either feed misinformation or feed information, but no one's doing that critical analysis to see what that information is, it's just building on whatever you've liked. So there's no critical thinking happening. Critical thinking happens when you have opposing views coming together, and then you can critically and analyze not only the information's source, but what the information is. That's not happening at all with these algorithms.

If you only hang out with people who have the exact same opinion as you, you're not really getting the opposing view, you're not understanding where people are coming from, and that is a problem. That's a problem globally as well. If you only understand the needs of people who just think exactly like you, and you never understand opposing country views, you're not going to understand what their needs are, and what their concerns are, and you're going to have very little chance of coming to any agreement with them when you get into a serious situation. 

And one of the questions I asked of the city leaders was, "Where do you get your information?" I was pleased to see most of them got them from scientific sources, also a quarter of them got them from Facebook and Twitter, which can be okay, NASA has feeds on Twitter and Facebook, as does the IPCC and NOAA. However, there's a lot of misinformation out there as well, and no one is reading through what's right and what's not right, what's scientific and what's sort of anecdotal, that's the problem. So more education, more dependence on scientific sources, that's what's going to help people understand the risk to them locally, which is going to in turn help them prepare better against these climate events that are going to happen more and more frequently.

Sankey: Many very effective information campaigns really hang on framing of the issue. You used the really current and very high profile example of cannabis. It has gone from a reefer madness law and order issue that has morphed into a medical issue and an economic one, as States think of it as a tax base. A lot of climate discussion though, ends up as framed as taking jobs away from resource workers, oil and gas, or cutting off access to fun stuff that tourists use and that tourists are providing a lot of money to an area. What are the options for framing these kind of issues less threatening-ly and more productively? 

Young: We're in the middle of this right now. The Conference Of The Parties, the COP 26 that happened in Glasgow recently, we're seeing some of this change right now. For example, Ford Motor Company just announced that they are re-framing to have most of their fleet in the coming years be electric. And that's a huge thing for a big US company to do. And they're doing it because one, they see the writing is on the wall, that's the direction we would have to go if we're going to even start to slow some of the hazards that we're creating for ourselves by all of these emissions. They are re-tooling, they are re-training their people to operate within the new realm. So it's not that people will lose jobs, we're re-framing it to their... They'll be re-tooled and they'll do something else. Getting back to the message itself, yes, you can frame things. If you keep repeating something over and over again, eventually people start to believe you, or at least they stop the critical thinking to analyze what you're saying and why you're saying it. And that happened a lot. The fossil fuel industry, automobiles included, they started to say, "Well, we're just going to lose jobs and we can't stop what we're doing."

"We have to continue to do what we're doing." Well, they are re-framing that now into, we know about electric cars, we know they're the way of the future, and we know that's where we have to go, and so we're taking the lead. Well, Tesla already did this, but Ford now is huge, coming out saying, "Yeah, we're doing this all over the place now." And even in the manufacturing area, you have companies that are responsible for building the parts. Just even the metallurgy that goes into constructing the vehicles themselves are switching over from heavier mechanisms, heavier fuels, and heavier materials to lighter materials. Less fuel when you have a lighter car. All over the industry, throughout the US, at least, it is making that move. They're saying that they can make a profit. They can sell cars that are more fuel efficient and that are even electric. And I was really impressed to see that Ford took this on just this week, they announced that. So they're changing the framing. They are changing the message itself. It was never an issue of, "We can't do it, it's just not possible."

They just didn't know how and they didn't want to make that move. But now, they can see that the writing is on the wall and they're starting to reframe that message. We can continue to do this, but we need to do this framing, because there are still quite a few people out there who deny that that's happening at all, or they deny that humans have anything to do with it. We have to reframe that message into, "Yes, humans are having the greater impact on increasing temperatures and we can do something about it collectively." But we need to get those messages out more.

Sankey: I was absolutely stunned at the first electric heavy pick-up commercial that I saw from Ford. I was used to all the kind of models of electric cars being like Priuses and Compacts, and it was a huge leap for me to see that they are approaching a market that traditionally, has been kind of more power. And so, that really seemed optimistic to me. It seemed like an approach that could be something that tied worlds together of sportsmen or farmers who really see the environment first hand and then put that into their consumer choices. So I was just sitting there kind of open-mouth, thinking that'll be the day with an Eagles soundtrack too.


Young: Yeah, it's happening. It's happening now and the industry sees that, the industry is moving in that direction. We're not seeing any net losses of jobs. We're seeing people being retooled, put into other areas or re-trained into similar areas. So that's what we're seeing so far, and we'll just continue to see more of that. Well, the US especially, is very good at retooling its people into new areas. That's how we're able to succeed at, a lot of areas economically, we're able to re-tool, we see the advantages and we see the benefits to ourselves into the economy, and we do it. And it is very doable, and there are very good options out there for all sorts of renewable energy for the country. And in fact, it's not just us. I read a report recently that the military has been looking at transforming some of its fleets to more electric fleets as well. I don't think they have a plan to do that throughout, but they certainly can in some areas, they can also have fewer emissions in general from their own installations.

Sankey: I know that when we took our RSS [Regional Security Studies] trip to Hickam in Hawaii, we were surprised to see all the solar panels everywhere. And that's so important for energy independence on an island where resources are pretty scarce and being able to supply reliable and sustainable power to a large installation is so important.

Young: Absolutely. Not just for the military, but even for cities. They need to look at alternative modes of power. Even down here in Florida, where we have access to a grid. A local power company is putting in acres and acres of solar panel farms now to help offset in case of a major storm event, but also just to help offset the increasing costs of electricity with fossil fuels. This is happening all over the world. You'll see a lot of wind power throughout the world, it makes sense. You'll see much more of that. The challenge, I think, to our country, in particular, will be to... how to distribute that, because some renewable sources are better in certain areas than others, you'll have the wind-mapping exercises to see what has the biggest potential for wind, what has the biggest potential for solar. And you have to get that power then, from that location to the next. So this is where transmission lines and distribution lines become very important, and we've been, as a country, been ignoring that for decades. We have to pay more attention to that and to get the power out to where it needs to be, but we certainly are moving in the right direction slowly. But we're moving in the right direction to diversify our power base, and we're also seeing costs go down when we do that. So it's happening, but it's happening in a slow pace.

Sankey: You point out that the really big importance of these successful projects is that it helps to support people's optimism and their belief in their own agency, that they tend to suffer from this kind of collective action problem, that if nobody's doing anything, nobody can do anything. But as they see constructive results, my power bill is less, there are fewer brown outs, the wind turbine is there and it's okay, and I've gotten used to it. That was the thing in North Dakota where the big flat places were really ideal for those big Danish-made wind mills. So how can cities harness this kind of psychology to build on these feedback loops of success? 

Young: Yeah, that's an important point because it's not just an idea. And I mentioned collective efficacy before, where they just get together. With scientific organizations and cities can share information about what can be done. But going beyond that, you have to look at how that helps you. So there's a quantifying element to it as well. You have to see to what extent they have improved, not just things that they can do, but how it has improved them or how it has prevented damage. And you need to have more information that they're sharing. So cities need to share the information of how certain actions have helped or hindered them. For example, in our area, and actually all along this Atlantic coast in Florida, we have this massive, [chuckle] massive effort to re-nourish our beaches. This is where tax money is going to bring in sand and just put in new beaches because we want to make sure that we have the tourist dollars. I would love to see that balance sheet, to see how much we're getting in tourist dollars versus how much it's costing us to re-nourish these beaches every year. I want to see what's really happening, but you have to look at the numbers, how much it costs, and then whether you're really seeing a change physically and in over what period of time.

So there's more to it than just sharing an idea of putting in a park. You have to quantify the benefits and the cost of doing these activities.

Sankey: Studies like yours are taking place in universities and colleges, how can a local government or even a base commander, tap into that pool of brain power in order to work in good partnerships on these issues? 

Young: There are enormous resources, a wealth of resources through universities and colleges. So bases can depend on local universities as well to bring in consultants to help tease out ideas or just discuss challenges. But I would also say that bases have been in the lead in many cases, and they can share their information with local communities. The military is well respected. In my part of Florida, it's well respected.  We welcome experts from the military coming in and talking to cities about what bases have done to harden their sites, but also reduce their emissions and reduce their impermeable, cement surfaces, create more protected wetland areas.. So there is a mutual exchange of information that can happen between military bases and local communities, but certainly bringing in also the academia that can study these issues, it has stayed up on top of what's happening in the latest climate change science and policy realm. That it's important to bring those three aspects together, academia, the military and local communities.

Sankey: How did your previous USAID experience inform and support the way that you were thinking about this kind of action? 

Young: Well, I first joined USAID in the Foreign Service to do environmental science. I was an environment officer working on watershed issues. In Latin America, and Honduras in particular was hit very hard by a lot of storms and the country was devastated, and we looked at holistically at watershed, so every place in a local geographic area where the water hits the ground and where it flows, whether going through cities out into the sea, we looked at that whole watershed and looked at how water was moving and how businesses and communities were dealing with that and how they were managing their problems and how they were reinforcing structures or benefiting with eco-tourism, we studied that whole area.

In addition, I worked in Sri Lanka after the tsunami hit in 2004. They had to do a lot of clean-up of storms. Now, that was a tsunami. That was a different type of storm event than we're talking about with climate change. But they were also hit regularly by typhoons. And how they respond, whether they respond to that and the loss of life and property related to those storms that you really have to think about what we're doing globally that's affecting the events that are impacting you locally. When I served in Iraq for a couple of years, water was a continual issue and water for not just drinking water, but for irrigation, those were huge issues.

And they continue to be huge issues in those parts of the world. All of this makes you really wonder, why haven't we solved these problems already? They aren't that difficult, you would think, but it's not just solving it locally, you have to solve it on a global scale, this is why we need all of these countries involved in addressing the emissions issue of greenhouse gases, so that we don't continue to create a bigger problem for ourselves, while at the same time, we're trying to address the issues locally. We can't just spend billions of dollars locally to reinforce beaches [chuckle], because we're going to continue to have this problem of the emissions. We're just going to continue to have the problems and we'll never, never get ahead of it, unless we address the emissions, the cause of the problem, we have to address that just as significantly as we're addressing the adaptation to the problem.

Sankey: What else would you like to do in terms of further study? Where do you want your research to go next? 

Young: I'd love to look at this issue of how the military, in some ways, has been a leader in addressing this issue of climate change, and I'd love to have that information shared more with the US public. Because again, in a lot of areas, you'll see that the military scene is respected and seen as a leader, and if they can see that, "Oh, the military is doing it", it sort of builds a local community's efficacy that they can also do it. I'd love to study that more, and I'd love to work on that angle a little bit more.

Sankey: Well, I think we're ready to wrap things up. Is there anything else that you would like to say that we didn't get to? 

Young: Well, I just want to shout out to Seminar 12. Wherever Seminar 12 is, [chuckle] that was my seminar when I was in the War College. Cool, yeah.


Sankey: Well, Dr. Young, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Wild Blue Yonder on the Air. This is an issue that you can see firsthand, but also is driving change and conflict around the world, it's one of those wicked VUCA problems, and we hope that the military can be a significant player in resolving these kind of drivers of conflict. So thank you for your work and thank you for being here.

Young: My pleasure. Good to see you. Thank you.

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