credit: The Desert Sun
Global warming is already harming human health, the economy and national security...
Climate change isn't just an environmental issue. At least not in the traditional sense.
Global warming bears all the hallmarks of environmental catastrophe: dwindling rivers, raging wildfires, dying animals and more. But those consequences aren't even half the story. Experts say climate change could devastate human health, the economy and national security, making the world a more dangerous place to live and widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
In many places, people are already feeling those impacts.
The Mountain Fire burns over a ridgeline behind the Garner Cattle Co. near the Southern California mountain communities of Idyllwild, Mountain Center and Garner Valley on July 15, 2013.
(Photo: Crystal Chatham/The Desert Sun)
Climate-linked heat waves, disease outbreaks and food shortages have already killed an untold number of people. Droughts, hurricanes and wildfires made more likely by climate change have exacted a huge economic toll, as have rising sea levels. A growing body of research indicates that a severe drought helped kindle the Syrian Civil War — just one example of why the Pentagon considers climate change a national security "threat multiplier."
"From almost any perspective that you choose to look at this from, it makes sense to stop the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels, to stop our heavy reliance on energy sources from volatile, dangerous parts of the world, to turn toward energy strategies that will be safer, healthier, more sustainable and create more jobs and opportunities," said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
The Desert Sun spoke with half a dozen experts about how climate change affects human health, the economy and national security. Here's a breakdown of what they said.
Climate change is complicated, but one of its biggest health impacts is easy to understand: As the world gets hotter, more people will get sick or die due to extreme heat.
In 2014, the National Climate Assessment — a collaboration between a dozen government agencies — released its latest report detailing the effects of global warming in the United States. The report noted that extreme summer heat is already on the rise, and that heat waves "are projected to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration." Across the country, the hottest days could be 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2100 if nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the last 30 years, nearly 4,000 people have died due to heat in the United States, according to the National Weather Service. In Russia, a 2010 heat wave killed more than 50,000 people — and it was made three times more likely by climate change, one study found.
"It's quite likely that heat waves are getting more severe and more frequent because of climate change," said Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington's School of Public Health.
People rest at Manezhaya Square, just outside the Moscow Kremlin, on Aug. 9, 2010, enjoying a brief respite from smog due to a change in the wind direction. Deaths in Moscow doubled to an average of 700 people a day as the Russian capital was engulfed by poisonous smog from wildfires and a sweltering heat wave.
(Photo: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
As the world heats up, illnesses that once were confined to the tropics are starting to spread north and south, often because rising temperatures create ideal conditions for the heat-loving insects that carry them. Frumkin pointed to dengue fever and Lyme disease, which he said have taken root in the United States due to changing climate conditions. Some scientists believe global warming will help mosquitoes carrying Zika virus spread further into the United States.
Frumkin predicted that climate change's most significant health consequences won't come from extreme heat or chaotic weather, but rather from damage to agriculture. Rising temperatures are expected to reduce global food production, because some crops don't grow as well in high heat and because rainfall will become more unreliable in certain regions.
In many developing countries, lower food production could mean more deaths from starvation and undernutrition. In countries like the United States, it could mean higher food prices. When food prices have gone up in the past, Frumkin said, poorer Americans have increasingly turned toward cheaper, lower-nutrient foods that contribute to health problems like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
"We may aggravate our chronic disease problems," he said.
Like many of the effects of climate change, reduced food production will hit the world's most vulnerable people the hardest, with poor countries suffering more than rich countries. In the United States, the poor and people of color are expected to experience the worst consequences from global warming.
Linda Rudolph, director of the Climate Change and Public Health Project at the nonprofit Public Health Institute, called global warming "a double whammy for people of color and low-income communities." Those communities already suffer disproportionately from chronic health issues like asthma, heart diseases and diabetes, Rudolph said, making them more vulnerable to smog, wildfire smoke and other air pollutants associated with climate change or the burning of fossil fuels. Agricultural workers face some of the greatest risks, she said, because they spend so much time laboring under the hot sun.
"If you live in poor-quality housing where you don't have decent screens on windows, you're more susceptible to being bitten by mosquitoes," Rudolph said. "If you're poor and already having a hard time buying enough food at the end of every month, then when food prices go up, you're at greater risk of food insecurity, and at greater chronic disease risk."
A farmworker plants bell peppers in a Coachella Valley field as the sun sets on a July day. At this time of year and day, temperatures tend to hover around 107 degrees.
(Photo: J. Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)
Many of the power plants that spew planet-warming greenhouse gases also emit local air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter. Cutting carbon emissions, experts say, would also help to reduce those pollutants, which are most prevalent in poor communities.
It's hard to count the number of deaths directly attributable to global warming. A 2012 report from the international humanitarian group DARA estimated that climate change already kills 400,000 people per year, mostly through hunger and disease. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, climate change will be responsible for about 240,000 deaths per year.
"It's only going to get worse," Rudolph said. "The choices that we make today to reduce carbon pollution from coal plants, or reduce carbon pollution from our cars — we can still make changes that will reduce the magnitude of the longer-term impacts on the health of our children."
Climate change is expected to wreak havoc on our pocketbooks, too.
It's hard to know how many dollars and cents global warming will cost the world. But some experts have tried to quantify the threat. Among them are researchers working with the Risky Business Project, a bipartisan initiative convened by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, liberal financier Tom Steyer, and Henry Paulson, who served as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.
In a 2014 report, the Risky Business Project found that between $238 billion and $507 billion worth of coastal property will likely be below sea level in the United States by 2100, if current trends continue. There's a small but not insignificant chance that number could reach $701 billion.
Sandbags protect the front of the New York Stock Exchange from flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012.
(Photo: AP Photo/Richard Drew)
The group also estimated that by 2100, the average American will probably experience between 45 and 96 days each year over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That heat could reduce the productivity of outdoor workers by as much as 3 percent, the report found, not to mention lead to more deaths. Farm yields could drop as much as 70 percent in parts of the South and Midwest, although some of that loss could be made up by geographic shifts in crop production. Energy demand could shoot up as people use more air conditioning, especially in the Southwest and Southeast.
In a 2014 essay, Paulson compared climate change to the 2008 financial meltdown. Failing to act on climate, he wrote, would be "even more serious" than America's failure to avert the financial crisis.
"The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we emit into the atmosphere today will remain there for centuries, and government will not be able to avert catastrophe at the last minute," he wrote. "It's as if we're watching as we fly slow motion toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, but we're sitting on our hands instead of altering course."
Wind-blown mist from the Hudson River, along with driving rain in West New York, N.J., fills the air on Oct. 29, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy lashes the East Coast. Manhattan is visible in the background.
(Photo: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Marshall Burke, an economist and professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, has studied the impacts of higher temperatures on labor and agricultural productivity. He co-authored a study last year finding that by 2100, unchecked climate change could make the world 23 percent poorer than it otherwise would have been, in terms of gross domestic product per person.
The United States would fare worse than the world as a whole, ending up 36 percent poorer than it otherwise would have been, Burke and two other professors found.
They reached that number by looking at how countries performed economically in hotter years versus colder years from 1960 through 2010, once other factors were removed from the equation. They found that economies generally did worse during hot years, all else held equal. Then they estimated how temperatures will change over the next century, under a scenario where humanity does little or nothing to stem the emission of greenhouse gases.
"I think people intuitively understand that they feel less productive on hot days. And imagine you now have a lot of those hot days," Burke said.
Since most poor countries are already hot to begin with, Burke said, their economies will suffer the most. On the other hand, some rich countries — including Canada and much of Europe — are relatively cold right now, meaning they could actually experience some economic gains.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders drew scorn from conservatives last year when he said at a Democratic presidential debate that climate change "is directly related to the growth of terrorism." He had previously called climate change the greatest national security threat facing the United States.
National security experts say it's difficult to compare global warming to more conventional threats, like nuclear proliferation and ISIS. But they agree that global warming has already made America less safe. Rising temperatures, they say, could aggravate conflicts and stoke extremism in already-unstable regions, while simultaneously threatening America's military readiness.
"The Department of Defense has labeled climate change a 'threat multiplier' in strategic documents. What that means is that it makes other security risks worse," said Francesco Femia, co-founder and president of the Center for Climate and Security, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "That's the issue, not climate change in competition with terrorism."
The idea of climate change as a national security threat is becoming conventional wisdom in military circles. As early as 2003, a report from Bush's Pentagon warned that abrupt climate change could spark "a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water," helping trigger military conflicts. Last year, the Department of Defense issued a more thorough report on the security implications of climate change, finding that it will "aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries."
Syrians walk amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following reported air strikes by regime forces in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on Aug. 30, 2015.
(Photo: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)
The biggest security problems could stem from global warming's impacts on water supplies. Studies have found that many of the world's dry regions are getting even drier. Some of those regions — including the Middle East and North Africa — are politically combustible.
Experts point to the ongoing Syrian conflict as an example of how climate change can fuel instability and violence. A brutal drought in the late 2000s — which scientists say was made far more likely by global warming — played a big role in decimating Syria's agricultural sector, Femia said. Crop failures displaced between 1.5 and two million people, he said, many of whom migrated to cities already strained by poverty, failing water infrastructure and an influx of Iraqi refugees.
"Climate change made conditions worse in the region, and made the likelihood of instability and conflict greater," Femia said. "Those kinds of things are likely to happen more and more in the future as we see increased drying."
Marcus King — an international affairs professor at George Washington University, and former Defense Department official — cautioned that it's hard to draw a straight line between climate change and terrorism. But when global warming contributes to drought, poverty, hunger and forced migration in unstable regions, he said, it "grows the pool of young men who are susceptible to recruitment by extremist organizations."
King pointed to several places where climate-influenced water scarcity could fan the flames of existing conflicts, including Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Egypt, which went through a violent revolution and regime change just five years ago. Egypt could face drought, flooding of farms along the Nile Delta due to sea-level rise, and the polluting of freshwater supplies with salt water — all while the population skyrockets, King said.
"If you want to look at the various effects of climate change, Egypt could potentially be a worst-case scenario," he said.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln arrives at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., on Aug. 7, 2012.
(Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Climate change also threatens American military infrastructure, reducing the country's readiness for conflict, experts say. Rising seas are encroaching on military bases like Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia — America's largest naval complex — and Camp Thunder Cove, a naval facility on a tiny, low-lying island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia. Training ranges in California could face water shortages and increased wildfire risks as the U.S. Southwest gets drier, King said.
Policymakers need to take climate change seriously, Femia said. While it's unclear exactly what the future will hold, the outlook definitely isn't good — and the time to start acting is now, he said.
"We put a lot of effort and political will into stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which is low likelihood, because the consequences are enormous," Femia said. "With climate change we have a lot more certainty — we know where things are going."
Story by Sammy Roth, The Desert Sun | April 14, 2016
Series by Sammy Roth HERE.
Sammy Roth writes about energy and the environment for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (760) 778-4622 and @Sammy_Roth.
original story HERE.