Updated: May 7, 2014 6:02PM
Back when Argonne National Laboratory was founded, during the Cold War, America’s national security efforts were focused on protecting us from the terrifying specter of nuclear war. Today, almost 70 years later, Argonne’s scientists and engineers are still working to defend America from a potentially devastating threat. But this time, we are facing a new enemy — the climate changes caused by the carbon dioxide we emit into our atmosphere.
As we slowly emerge from a long, cold winter, it may be difficult for many Chicagoans to worry about “global warming.” But the threat of climate change is not limited to increased temperatures, (although droughts and heat waves pose real threats to people and farms across the Midwest.) We also see the symptoms of our increasingly unstable climate in the torrential rains that overwhelm storm sewer systems and flush billions of gallons of untreated sewage into Lake Michigan, in the “century floods” that now can strike every couple of years, and yes, possibly even in the intense snowstorms that made this past winter so miserable.
As the just-released Third National Climate Assessment report confirms, every part of this country is threatened by the effects of climate change, from the rising sea levels on our coasts to the droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and powerfully intense storm systems that have ripped through communities nationwide. Here in the Midwest, we have been battered by more and more drenching downpours, raging floods and lethal heat waves over the past decade; in 2011 alone, this region was hit by 11 separate weather-related disasters that each caused more than $1 billion in damage.
At Argonne, and at Department of Energy national laboratories across the country, we are developing a full arsenal of weapons to fight climate change and its impacts, making today’s power plants, factories, trucks and cars run more cleanly and safely, and developing revolutionary new green technologies that will end our dependence on fossil fuels.
But even as we work to address the fundamental causes of climate change, we also must prepare ourselves to face a barrage of increasingly severe and unpredictable weather disasters. To that end, Argonne has launched a new Center for Integrated Resiliency Analyses (CIRA) that uses data-driven science to help American communities assess potential threats to their residents and their critical infrastructure. And because building resilience in our communities takes more than analyzing data and reinforcing our buildings, bridges and highways, CIRA’s experts also focus on strengthening “social infrastructures” of government policies and emergency response plans.
In the fine print of our home insurance policies, we may see storms and floods defined as “acts of God.” But it’s time for us to stop thinking of dangerous weather as an unlikely hazard that we can’t really do anything about. Severe weather has become a real and present danger to our national security, and we have a responsibility to anticipate it and take steps to defend against it.
During the Cold War, our young schoolchildren were famously told to “duck and cover” to protect themselves from impending attack. But as we see from the overwhelming facts in the Third National Climate Assessment report, we can’t hide from the impacts of climate change, and we can’t cross our fingers and hope that the next massive storm system will hit somewhere else. Instead, it’s time for all of us to stand up, face this threat squarely, and start protecting our national security by building our communities’ resilience.
Peter B. Littlewood is director of Argonne National Laboratory.