The Bite of the Asp

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Richard Maltzman
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I was planning to end the series which included The Promise of the Waxworm and Terror Under the Tundra, after those two posts. However, the statistics revealed that the posts received so much attention that I felt compelled to write a capstone third entry, and in that way, to make this a trilogy.  Somehow (perhaps it's the influence of Star Wars) a trilogy seems...better.  It’s poetic (well, that’s a stretch, really) to note that this post comes back to the Waxworm, with both the snake and the worm having a similar body shape.  See – I told you it was a stretch!

This entry discusses a project (this is a project management blog, after all) called The American Security Project (ASP).  There’s the reference to the asp.  There’s another connection, too.  There’s a sense that we are –as a country – falling into a sense of complacency with respect to the threat of climate change.  It’s a bit like falling asleep ad dreaming that ‘everything is okay’ – and it’s fine to go back to carbon-centric, non-renewable fuels and relax regulations…relax…everything.  And that reminded me of the asp as well:

From Wikipedia: According to Plutarch (quoted by Ussher), Cleopatra tested various deadly poisons on condemned persons and concluded that the bite of the asp (from aspis—Egyptian cobra, not European asp) was the least terrible way to die; the venom brought sleepiness and heaviness without spasms of pain.

So my point here is that we need to avoid the sleepiness and wake up to the reality of climate change even if it is not affecting us directly, right now.  Let’s shift now to the ASP of the acronym mentioned above.

Here’s the opening statement from the ASP homepage.  In and of itself it is worth a read:

Climate change alone will not cause wars, but it serves as an “Accelerant of Instability” or a “Threat Multiplier” that makes already existing threats worse. The threat of global warming for security will manifest through a range of effects: resource scarcity, extreme weather, food scarcity, water insecurity, and sea level rise will all threaten societies around the world. Too many governments are not prepared for these threats, either because they do not have the resources or because they have not planned ahead. How societies and governments respond to the increase in instability will determine whether climate change will lead to war.

As a project manager, you should recognize this as the background of risk identification in your projects.  Remember the concept of a risk trigger?  A risk trigger is something that makes you think that a threat is about to happen or perhaps is already happening, but you may not yet have seen it in practice.  An example of a risk trigger for a forest ranger would obviously be smoke.  “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”, right?  However, a less-obvious but just as important risk trigger is “Ten consecutive days without rain”, because even though there’s no smoke, this would increase the likelihood of a forest fire above average.  For more on the definition of a risk trigger, see this link.  The ten consecutive dry days are an “accelerant of instability” with respect to fire.  Similarly, climate change is an “accelerant of instability” or a “threat multiplier” for a whole series of threats to the US (and really any) government.

ASP is directed by a board that is nonpartisan and is made up of retired brigadier generals, well-known news commentators, retired vice Admirals, former secretaries of the Department of Defense… a very impressive group – so this is not a radical or partisan organization.  It is worth your time to look through the Board membership, on this link.

As an example of the “threat multiplier”, let’s look at one major issue: the refugee crises around the world.  ASP has written a report, which you can download here, called Perspective: Preventing the World’s  Next Refugee Crisis.  Here’s a summary:

In an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, four countries: Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen are all on the verge of famine at the same time. A catastrophe of this magnitude would perpetuate mass migrations of people as well as create environments for terrorist groups to prosper.  This report details the unique factors that have driven each of these four countries to their current levels of instability while also discussing their common challenges. This report examines the high levels of conflict that exist in all four countries, with close attention to how the security ramifications of climate change have contributed to these conflicts.  Most importantly, this report concludes with a discussion on how the world can avoid new, destabilizing disasters similar to the Syrian refugee crisis. 

  • 20 million lives are at risk of famine in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. The situation in each country has been escalated by severe weather and dryness linked to climate change.
  • Although not the sole factor for the instability, climate change has accelerated the systemic threats that exist in each country to make each case more aggravated.
  • Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen already have a heightened vulnerability to climate change because of their reliance on subsistence agriculture and food imports. When extreme weather linked to climate change collides with other systemic threats in this susceptible environment it contributes to chaos and conflict.
  • Challenges that exist in all four countries such as impotent governments, rapid population growth, and local terrorist initiatives are amplified by severe droughts which are exacerbated by climate change.
  • Failure to address this crisis will result in the deaths of thousands, create refugee crises similar to the one currently emanating from the Syrian civil war, and provide militant terrorist organizations with fertile grounds for recruiting new members.
  • The United States and the international community need to take swift action to mitigate this disaster as this situation has substantial destabilizing potential. At this stage, the U.S. should provide robust support to international organizations such as the UN in order to prevent certain catastrophe.

The report is full of research, supported by references to (for example) the latest NASA imagery.  Here’s an example, regarding the “threat accelerator” of drought in Yemen.

I’m aware that some of you may look at all of this with a cynical view, perhaps doubting climate change or perhaps disagreeing with the worldview of this group.

Forget all that for a moment.

If nothing else, take a project management lesson from the perspective.  Take a look at the words in the bullets above.  They should sound familiar, because they are (naturally) written in the narrative of the PMBOK® Guide: words like “avoid”, “mitigate”, “threats” are prevalent not only in this teaser but in the document itself.  The concept of a risk trigger is fundamental to our practice as project managers and one you need to allow your projects to succeed and to provide lasting benefits realization.

I of course hope you share the concern, the understanding of the facts, and the view of this report, but even if not, I think we can all stand to learn more about risk, risk triggers, and risk response and avoid the ‘sleepiness and heaviness’ that can befall us if we suffer the “bite of the asp”.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: May 21, 2017 12:28 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Very thought provoking, thank you for the refresher on risk triggers.

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