Sometime on Monday the world population grew to 7 billion people, according to the United Nations. “Seven billion population is a challenge, and at the same time, an opportunity, depending upon how the international community prepares for that challenge,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference in New York on Monday.
It is interesting to reflect on what a world with 7 billion people means against the backdrop of global climate change. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported on the findings of a draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that cautioned that weather extremes could become worse as the world warms, making disasters like the 2010 Russian heat wave and the ongoing drought in Texas and the American Southwest more the norm than the extreme.
Yet, “global warming isn’t the sole villain in future climate disasters, the climate report says,” according to the Associated Press. “An even bigger problem will be the number of people – especially the poor – who live in harm’s way.”
It is clear that the world is shrinking. But in addition to a growing population, more and more people – especially in developing states – are moving from rural to coastal areas in order to take advantage of burgeoning cities and faster economic growth taking place along the world’s coastline. However, these people are in harm’s way. Indeed, this migration toward the littoral regions is forcing people to live in more dense communities in vulnerable areas that may be more susceptible to severe storms and sea level rise, the kinds of challenges likely to manifest from global climate change.
CNAS Senior Fellow Robert Kaplan described this phenomenon in his book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power:
Although the rate at which world population grows continues to drop, the already large base of population guarantees that absolute rises in the number of human beings have never been greater in countries that are most at risk. This means that over the coming decades more people than ever before, in any comparable space of time save for a few periods like the fourteenth century during the Black Death, are likely to be killed or made homeless by Mother Nature.
Bangladesh, for example, is a state where these demographic, environmental and climate change trends may collide. Kaplan wrote in Monsoon that, “With 150 million people living packed together at sea level, the lives of many millions in Bangladesh are affected by the slightest climatic variation, let alone by the dramatic threat of global warming.” Moreover, the consequences for the United States could be stark, according to Kaplan: “The U.S. Navy may be destined for a grand power balancing game with China in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but it is more likely to be deployed on account of an environmental emergency, which is what makes Bangladesh and its problems so urgent.”
World leaders need to remain vigilant and continue to integrate these demographic and environmental trends into their planning efforts in order to stave off major disasters. As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday, there is an opportunity for the world to manage this challenge. In particular, countries like the United States are in a good position to help vulnerable developing countries adapt to global climate change. In the littoral regions, for example, the U.S. Navy should continue to take proactive measures and partner with other militaries to develop robust search and rescue and disaster relief capabilities. Moreover, the U.S. public and private sector can share experiences and best practices with developing states about how to develop infrastructure that can withstand increased sea level rise and more intense and frequent storms.
The bottom line is that U.S. leaders and others need to think critically about the inextricable linkages between demographic, environmental and climate change trends in order to take advantage of the opportunities they present, rather than have to confront the challenges that await inaction.