Fall 2020

Task Force Climate Change: A Patron Saint of Lost Causes, or Just Ahead of Its Time?

David W. Titley

This essay explores the origins of the 2009 U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change (TFCC) from the perspective of its founder and initial director. The director’s background is described briefly, along with events and actions of Navy leadership that led to creating the TFCC. The essay states five lessons learned within the context of setting the direction and tone for change in a large organization and examines five areas in which the TFCC arguably has made a positive difference to the U.S. Navy. The essay provides an overview of U.S. Navy and national climate-related actions after the author’s tenure as director of the TFCC, and concludes by addressing climate change risks within the context of current efforts to understand and manage adverse impacts from the COVID-19 virus.

David W. Titley, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy, retired, was the Oceanographer and Navigator of the U.S. Navy, where he served for thirty-two years and, in 2009, initiated and led the U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change. He is an Affiliate Professor of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science and Affiliate Professor of International Affairs at the Pennsylvania State University. He was the Founding Director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. He chairs the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Climate Communications Initiative and serves as a Board Member for the Council on Strategic Risks.

All I ever wanted to do was to forecast the weather. I’m not sure exactly why or where that interest came from; my parents told me a tornado went through our backyard when I was two years old, although I have no recollection of that event. I grew up in an old manufacturing city in upstate New York; maybe the brutal winters with eighty inches of snow each year had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, by the time I was in first grade, my six-year-old self knew I was going to work in weather-related fields for the rest of my life, even if I really didn’t know what that meant at the time.

I attended Penn State University for my undergraduate studies, which was and still is a magnet for teenaged kids with a passion for weather. Their undergraduate meteorology program has been leading the nation for many decades. Unfortunately, that meant paying out-of-state tuition, something that really wasn’t within reach for our family. In the search for how to pay for college, I stumbled upon the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a recruiting and commissioning program used by the military services to bring young officers into their ranks. The Air Force and Navy each had their respective weather programs, so I applied to both services. The Air Force said “no,” the Navy said “yes,” and so at seventeen years of age, I joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman.

While my initial goal was to immediately enter the Navy’s weather corps (known as oceanography special duty officers), the Navy had other plans for me. Rather, I was sent to sea on an old guided missile destroyer as a regular line officer to “drive ships.” Although I was intensely disappointed, having waited my entire life to be a meteorologist, it turned out to be the best career move possible. There is no better way to understand your future customer or client than to be one. Additionally, you build a lot of credibility within the ranks of naval officers by becoming qualified in one of the core areas of the Navy: driving ships, flying aircraft, or operating submarines. I was learning a lot about institutional culture and how to talk about subjects that, while important, may be seen as peripheral to the audience.

For nearly thirty years, I worked as a naval officer specializing in oceanography and meteorology. Much of my time was spent communicating weather impacts to the operators: those who were in charge of ships, aircraft, submarines, or special operations. Nearly a decade of my time was spent at sea, where you get firsthand and immediate feedback on your weather forecasts and recommendations! Along the way, the Navy sent me to the Naval Postgraduate School to earn both a master’s and a doctorate degree in meteorology. I was also able to work for the secretary of Defense’s internal long-term think tank, an experience that taught me a lot about competitive strategies and net assessments. In 2004, I assumed command of the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center. Shortly after arriving, I hosted a workshop titled “Climate Variability and Change in Asia: Implications for Regional Stability.” The workshop was cosponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Office of Net Assessment. Unfortunately, there was neither funding (nor interest) for any follow-up work and the notes were soon set aside.

In 2007, figurative lightning struck, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the rank of admiral. My first job as an admiral was to run the operational component of Naval meteorology and oceanography; most of the broader ocean and weather policy and budget decisions were made by the oceanographer of the Navy and the Navy’s headquarters staff in the Pentagon. However, events were happening that year that would get the Navy’s attention and, ultimately, raise the institutional awareness of a changing climate.

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