Storms Brewing: Climate Change Results in More Than Natural Disasters

By CTU Faculty

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Climate ChangeHomeland security’s concern over the dangers presented by climate change extends beyond the obvious one. To understand this, it is important to know the history of climate change and its impact on our planet. According to NASA, Earth has gone through seven cycles of major climate change, with the most recent one concluding 7,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age and the dawn of human civilization. The current warming trend, however, is most likely created by humans and is proceeding at an unprecedented rate with carbon dioxide levels significantly higher than at any time in the last 400,000 years. This process is leading to, among other things, rising sea levels (as glaciers and Arctic sea ice melt), warming and more acidic oceans, and increasing instances of extreme weather events ranging from droughts in some places to intense rainfall in others.

From the perspective of homeland security (HLS), climate change has some important implications.  The first of these is that it is likely to lead to more extreme weather events and hence to greater numbers of natural disasters. In coastal areas, the combination of extreme weather and rising sea levels will likely bring about more devastation than has previously been experienced – with 2012’s Superstorm Sandy being a good example of this. Consequently, the emergency-management function within HLS is likely to remain critical, and the nation will need to continue to fund preparedness efforts (training, exercises, equipment, hiring of personnel) for coping with natural disasters ranging from wildfires and flooding to tornadoes, hurricanes, and snow and ice storms. While people know HLS gets involved in the response to natural disasters, climate change impacts us in other ways that also concerns HLS personnel.  

The Population Response

In the developing world, climate change is likely to lead to increasing food and water shortages that could potentially lead to mass migration flows. Today, about 3 billion people are living in abject poverty and, given current population growth, another 2 to 3 billion are expected to join that population over the course of this century. Humanity is currently using approximately 2.3 hectares of bioproductive land (farmland, forests, fisheries, etc.) per person, and the planet only has about another 1.5 hectares of bioproductive land available. In other words, we do not have the resource base to support significant population growth, but significant population growth is what we are going to get. The mass migration flows of people looking for food and water to sustain their families may destabilize a range of countries (thus producing issues for the United States in the national security realm), but they could also impact the U.S. directly if the number of illegal immigrants arriving in the country rises dramatically. The increase in frustration and human hardship worldwide may also spawn ideologies and actions that lead to greater terrorism.

Climate Change and Disease

Finally, climate change’s domino effect may lead to a public health threat. As Arctic and sub-Arctic areas, as well as deserts in places such as Eastern Australia, enjoy increased levels of rainfall, transmission rates will grow since disease carriers of certain pathogens (such as mosquitoes or snails) will thrive and spread out in such environments. Increasing heat worldwide will also impact diseases and the organisms that transmit them. For example, as Andrew Price-Smith, Ph.D., points out, Nairobi, due to its altitude, has historically been largely free of malaria, but in recent years, the warming environment has permitted the expansion of malaria into that area.

In short, HLS practitioners will need to contend with the implications and repercussions of global warming. In addition, policymakers should be aware that these changes are not hypothetical and that the nation needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with this. The repercussions of climate change are coming. Have we assessed what we can and cannot do, and what we should be doing right now?

Image Credit: Flickr/Mike Beauregard