When it comes to discussing the global threat of climate change, I had to ask one of the world’s most influential women on the subject if she’s optimistic about the future.
Thankfully, Sherri Goodman (pictured above) does feel some optimism. But she believes Australian politicians need to “wake up” and appreciate the full extent of the wide-ranging national security and economic challenges ahead.
Indeed, she calls climate change a “threat multiplier”, a term that underpins the CNA Military Advisory Board she founded, and that drives much of her work in looking at how climate change intersects with pre-existing problems to further accelerate instability.
Goodman, once one of the most senior women in the Pentagon and the former Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for Environment Security, is in Australia for a series of talks with the Lowy Institute.
“My key message is a that climate change is a threat multiplier,” she says. “We need to take it as seriously as we take issues like terrorism, and nuclear weapons.
“Let’s take nuclear weapons in the cold war: we spent massive amounts of GDP to reduce and deter the threat. Thankfully we were successful. That was a low probability, high consequence threat. Now we face climate change, and it’s a high probability, high consequence threat.”
Having featured in The Age of Consequences documentary, which recently aired on ABC’s 4Corners, Goodman traces the link between climate change to current conflicts, such as Syria, where 60% of the country experienced its worst crop failure and long-term drought from 2006 to 2010.
So when the consequences are so significant, why are we still debating the science in Australia and not taking the issue seriously?
“One reason is that it [climate change] can’t be countered just by a military response. It’s not a man made weapon. It’s harder in a security context to come to grips with a set of human caused, natural events, that have a slow onset impact but can cause devastating effects.”
Goodman says there’s a key role for women to play in further communicating the issue, and is encouraged by the idea of more women taking on positions of power.
“What we [women] have in common is that we don’t shrink from challenge, we’ve had to chase a lot of challenges to be successful, to get to where we are.
“I think women are also able to see what it takes, and know instinctively that when food water and shelter are at risk, that families, communities and societies are also at risk.”
For Goodman, who put together the male-dominated Military Advisory Board made up of decorated generals and admirals to report to Congress on the threat of climate change, it also helps to shift the language on how climate change is discussed. In 2015, she told BuzzFeed about how she used the term ‘threat multiplier’ to communicate the issue in military terms. “I just put it out there one day,” she said. “’How about we talk about it this way?’ And it stuck.”
So what will it take for politicians to “wake up” on this issue? Goodman says she hopes it doesn’t require a crisis, a humanitarian disaster or some other type of sudden surprise. “Responsible leaders recognise those risks and want to do the planning and preparation today so that when the next extreme whether event occurs, Australian communities will be more prepared to deal with that,” she says.
And while Goodman acknowledges the current political environment – both in the US and Australia – is challenging, she says the climate challenge can enable some of the failures of the current economic system to be addressed.
“We face a lot of challenges politically today, that’s because we haven’t paid sufficient attention to certain segments of the population that haven’t benefited from economic prosperity,” she says. “We ignored those signals at our peril. We’ve seen that in the US in the recent elections. We ignore climate signals also at our peril.”