Chad M.Briggs and Miriam Matejova, Disaster Security: Using Intelligence and Military Planning for Energy and Environmental Risks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 240pp.

Reviewed by: Simon Dalby, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University

Thinking about the future is never easy. Thinking about the future when the past is no longer a useful guide as to what can reasonably be expected to happen is a whole lot harder. But this is what policy makers, planners and those who are responsible for security in many forms now have to try to do. As environmental changes accelerate it becomes ever more important to anticipate possible dangerous events and prepare for disruptions.

Disasters, ever more so than in the past, are frequently a combination of weather extremes intersecting with infrastructure. Energy and environment are connected in matters of current climate change. Readers of Disaster Security: Using Intelligence and Military Planning for Energy and Environmental Risks will quickly come to understand that considering energy and environment together in terms of disasters makes sense for numerous reasons. The provision of energy in complex technological modes is key to the functioning of most human societies now; it is most needed when disaster strikes, and it is least likely to be available at precisely these moments. Unless, that is, careful planning anticipates key points of vulnerability and makes sure that the system is resilient even, especially, in extreme circumstances.

Hurricane Sandy Causes Heavy Rains and Floods in Haiti
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Because of the increasing interlinkages within and between societies, not least due to global trade and the Internet, environmental security has become a complicated matter of local conditions intersecting with global phenomena. Commodity chains as well as weather disruptions matter in how people are made vulnerable or how security is provided. Thinking about these interconnections in advance of potential disasters to allow appropriate preparatory planning is now increasingly important.

Militaries often use war games and simulation exercises for such planning and training. This very readable volume shows how these can be useful tools for thinking about energy and environmental security too. More specifically the core of this book focuses on how to use scenarios as teaching and learning tools to examine the perils and pitfalls of trying to plan to deal with unlikely but perhaps extremely dangerous events.

Drawing on a decade of unclassified scenario work with the US military and US Department of Energy, as well as university teaching exercises in both the US and Europe, this book takes the reader through a diverse range of possible disasters and how planners tried to cope with contingencies, both likely and unlikely.

Secretary-General Tours Headquarters after Hurricane Sandy
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Some of the scenarios played out in real life soon after they were tried; hurricane Sandy hit New York a few years after the exercise to examine the impacts of a major storm on the city was first run. Other planned scenario exercises were overtaken by events, an irony that emphasizes that apparently unlikely happenings are exactly what need to be thought about in this world!

One of the key lessons the authors learned in constructing their scenario exercises is that there is no substitute for local knowledge in particular places. Technical reports and published science only go so far; much detailed knowledge isn’t published, and data and local knowledge not least about political sensitivities are indispensable in understanding particular places and societies in ways that allow for sensible planning to deal with extreme weather and other disasters.

A second lesson is that few experts understand all aspects of what happens in a disaster and a diverse group of people with various forms of expertise is needed to generate useful scenarios. These exercises are especially helpful in allowing participants to understand what their training, professional responsibilities and experience may prevent them from considering in a crisis. Scenario exercises are one effective way of revealing institutional blind-spots before they become an obstacle to action.

Third it is important to recognize that while militaries are frequently called to assist in dealing with disasters, it is not their primary professional responsibility. Because of this their responses may be ill fitted to dealing with the complex politics that surrounds disaster responses. It is also the case that environmental phenomena may complicate military and disaster relief operations in unpredictable ways. Volcanic eruptions in particular can disrupt air traffic as air travelers have learnt to their considerable cost in a number of places in the last few years.

Another lesson is that in a digitally connected world conflicts can be played out in part by inducing disruptions to industry, as in the case of the Stuxnet virus used on Iranian nuclear facilities, denial of service attacks in Estonia or blackouts induced in various cities in recent years. Such disruptions are a threat to security in many ways, a form of entirely artificial disaster, which emphasizes the point that human security and traditional notions of hard security are increasingly intertwined in a globalized, digitalized, and connected world.

One of the key insights that runs all through this volume is that assumptions of a stable and predictable environment are no longer necessarily useful benchmarks for planning in any sphere of human activity. In a climate changed world where extreme and unpredictable weather is more likely, flexibility of thought, and an awareness of vulnerabilities in social and economic systems, is key to disaster planning. As such these complexities need to be integrated into United Nations plans for humanitarian interventions, disaster responses as well climate adaptation planning to reduce vulnerabilities to extreme events.

General Assembly Discusses Climate Change, Sustainable Development Agenda
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly have debated climate change and the need to prepare to respond to the difficulties that are clearly coming, not only to low-lying island states, but, as in the case of Hurricane Sandy, to metropolitan centers too. In September 2019 a further conference on dealing with climate change is planned for New York!

Numerous jurisdictions around the world are declaring climate emergencies without necessarily thinking through the appropriate policy responses. This volume will be a very useful tool for policy makers in numerous places to begin to examine the vulnerabilities they may have to confront in coming years at unexpected moments. Precisely because the case studies, and the assumptions brought to bear on them, draw from a range of international situations, this is a volume that deserves a wide readership.

Hopefully this very readable volume will get planners and policy-makers thinking outside their respective institutional responsibilities to see the larger picture of interconnected security risks that the new circumstances of globalization and climate change present. In so far as it does the authors will have done contemporary global governance a very considerable service.


Feature image credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi