Final Report: Sophomore Year Social Action Project

Research Question: How does climate change in the DMV area impact national security through threats to government or private property and social unrest?

Executive Summary

In the next several decades flooding, droughts, and instability will threaten DMV infrastructure, governance, and communities. These threats are a result of climate change and rising sea levels. The dual nature of Washington DC as a political hub and community complicates climate change policy as stakeholders, like local governments and federal agents, must choose between supporting national security infrastructure and community resources like food banks. This divide creates an opening for leaders to creatively craft policy which best prepares both spheres of DC to face the inevitable threat of climate change. Past efforts like Environmental Pledges and debates over climate mitigation or adaptation have not put the right tools in policy maker’s hands and, as such, have been largely ineffective in creating measurable or long term change. To make my own contribution, I have created a clothing drive with Charlie’s Place- a non profit which supports unhoused populations in Washington, DC. Our goal is to provide shelter from climate crisis like floods, extreme heat, and extreme cold. So far, our partnership has resulted in the donation of 75+ pieces of clothing with more donations coming.


Climate Change acts as a threat multiplier which compounds issues of poverty, political instability and social tension (National Security). By 2030, government reports suggest that the world will require 35% more food and 50% more energy which will aggravate these factors (National Security). The resulting shortages could cause social unrest which will impact national security as the DC community interacts with the sphere of federal government.

Property damage and infrastructure deterioration as a result of flooding has, historically, been the most prominent effect of climate change in Washington DC and should remain a central concern of policy makers. At just .1m Sea Level Rise, 103 properties including the House of Sweden, 3.4 km of metro line and 10.5 km of roads will be impacted by flooding (Ayyub et al.). This flooding and subsequent damage of property could impact transportation, health and social stability within the region. Poor and aging sewer systems which are, on average, 79 years old in Washington DC, will exacerbate flooding and will disproportionately impact low income areas (Flavelle). 

The dual role of Washington DC as a diverse community and as the political and defense capital of our nations, escalates these local level effects into a matter of national security. Federal infrastructure and National Security capital face potentially crippling climate change effects in the form of pervasive flooding and droughts. Specifically, JB Anacostia-Bolling, JB Langley-Eustis, JB Andrews, and the Naval Observatory have historically suffered from severe to moderate droughts during the period of  2002-2018 (United States, Congress). Currently,  JB Anacostia-Bolling, JB Langley-Eustis and Washington Navy Yard are predicted to continue suffering from flooding and, most notably, Langley has experienced a 14 inch sea level rise in the past century (United States, Congress).

Key Stakeholders

The DC Community: These are the individuals that live in Washington DC and who, without permanently relocating, will be subjected to all of the effects of local climate change. In this group I include local nonprofits and social capital. Notably, they comprise of many of the other stakeholders listed and take action through third parties and local adaptation efforts. I have identified this group as the most vulnerable and most important when addressing climate change readiness in the region.

Local Government: These are officials elected by DC residents or appointed to serve them. Most notably, The Commission on Climate Change and Resiliency- established by the mayoral office- comprises 16 field experts who were appointed by either the Mayor and Chairman of the Council (Commission on Climate Change). They research and publish reports on DC resilience to Climate Change and will have periodic public meetings. This group is based in research, but geared towards actionable efforts.

Federal Government/Defense Infrastructure: These entities impact DC budgets and will impact where funds are allocated in regards to environmental clean up or adoption policies. They are most concerned with preserving hard power sources like military bases and, while composed of members of the local community, will in their official capacity be less concerned with community-based effects. This creates a divide in attention and adds to redundancy and blind spots in DC preparedness.

Scholars: Academics such as Malini Ranganathan, a professor within the School of International Service, specializes in critical environmental policy and has commented on the importance of historically racist policies on local climate change policies. She researches the role of community resiliency and the effects of systematic racism on how communities adapt to climate change. While scholarship generates important information, it does not immediately serve the community on its own and must be coupled with other actors.

Appraisal of Past Efforts

Climate Change Pledges: In 2017, Mayor Bowser pledged to bring DC to Carbon Neutrality by 2050 (Climate Change). While a measurable step, this change does not immediately address vulnerabilities that DC residents will face in the upcoming years. This gap in intention and effect creates the possibility that immediately vulnerable populations are disproportionately harmed. Thus, it does not adequately address community-level threats posed by Climate Change.

Research/Readiness Government Entities: The Commission on Climate Change and Resiliency, established by the Mayor’s office, was established to evaluate vulnerabilities in the DC region and to draft reports on how the government can best prepare and adapt to these future inevitabilities (Commission on Climate Change). Through open meetings, this past action has also opened communication channels between bureaucrats and the community and has led to more transparency.

Adaptation vs Mitigation Debate: While not a specific historical project, this debate has pervaded most of all actions and most projects fall into one or both camps. Critiques of adaptation is that it abandons lower income areas and allows for major contributors to continue bad behavior. Mitigation is critiqued for feasibility concerns, cost, and often involves politicized versions of science that can be confusing or inaccurate. 

Community Resiliency Approach: A broad category of actions, these projects aim to address a variety of vulnerabilities within a community by building social capital and redistributing resources. Most often, the vulnerabilities are sorted into four categories: Human, Economic, Social, and Political Capital (Abramson et al). For example, social cohesion could be addressed through community outreach and children’s programs and education access could be impacted by community-based tutoring missions. While not immediately recognizable as effective for impacting climate change resiliency, these long term actions prepare communities for any long term or acute disasters.

Project Plan

Given my research and my identification of social vulnerabilities within DC, I have decided to move forward on a partnership with Charlie’s Place. Together, we will host a clothing drive and volunteer drive with the goal of providing shelter to unhoused citizens in Washington, DC.



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Background Guide- What Did I Learn?

During the first semester of my freshman year I was tasked with creating a background guide for the American University International Relations Society. It was focused around the South American drug trade and the steps which the United States and its global partners could take to quell it.

What did I do? I co-wrote a ten thousand word synthesis of research on three topics within this study. The challenging part: it had to be tailored to High School students. I couldn’t just write what I learned, I had to write it in a way that a younger student would understand and be interested in. Our goal in crafting the research guide was to spark further research and to give these students a strong foundation in a contemporary discussion.

So what? Unsurprisingly, the challenging audience combined with the daunting task of becoming well versed in a new topic area forced me to commit to goals and to take some risks that I wouldn’t have previously considered. For one, our biweekly topic deadlines meant that I had to research, research, research and commit to what I found since I didn’t have time to continuously second guess my understanding. My partner and I became skilled in the art of asking for guidance when we needed it and taking agency when we didn’t. We also learned to trust our colleagues and to collaborate effectively on a time crunch.

And did I mention our audience? Of course we had to be cognizant of our language and avoid assuming our audiences’ previous knowledge. The tricky part was writing so that they would be intrigued enough to do further research. It was a bit of a learning curve- relying on bad jokes and “relevant” slang only got us so far since that might keep them reading our report, but it did little to inspire future research. Ultimately, we learned that to make others interested we had to be interested. While our report was informational, by adding in a persuasive element of “this is why we found it interesting” kept the paper moving and distanced our work from a mere historical recount.

Now what? Do I plan on writing for High School students in the future? Not necessarily, but learning to gain the trust and intrigue of my audience empowers me to share my voice on a larger stage no matter the context. I also plan to continue learning confidently– to not question myself because I am a new to the conversation, but rather to take the opportunity to learn and grow. This guide took a lot of late nights and countless hours of work, however, it was an enriching hurdle to encounter during my first semester at American University.