June 17, 2009

Is Climate Change A Developing Country Problem?

Yesterday the White House released a major report (see video) produced by a consortium of 13 federal agencies organized by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, describes the current and future effects of climate change in the American homeland. Here are a few of the key findings:

  • The federal agencies that contributed to this report have documented observed changes to the climate within the United States and in its coastal areas. The report projects an increase in such changes.
  • Beyond just the natural environment, changes in the climate are already impacting transportation and energy systems as well.
  • Climate change will affect the dynamics of “social and environmental stressors” such as pollution and demographic changes.
  • We can still affect the rate of future change by mitigating human-generated emissions, and we can adapt to the climate changes that are already locked in based on emissions to date.

The United States will be strongly affected by climate change. The myth that only poor developing countries will suffer from climate change is a common misconception that probably arises from confusion between exposure and vulnerability to climate impacts. But virtually all of the categories of extreme weather events that traditionally affected our large and climatically diverse country are all projected to get worse: heavy downpours and associated flooding, intense hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, and droughts. Moreover, every region and most social and economic sectors in the U.S. are being affected now and will be affected more severely in the future. The report concludes on page 157:

Human-induced climate change is happening now, and impacts are already apparent. Greater impacts are projected, particularly if heat-trapping gas emissions continue unabated. Previous assessments have established these facts, and this report confirms, solidifies, and extends these conclusions for the United States.

So what if the United States will be impacted by climate change? How is that a national security concern?

  • The U.S. military has thousands of facilities on American soil, including coastal installations that may be vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges, water supply contamination, and energy supply disruptions. The military will face the same climate impacts that civilian systems will face.
  • As much as the United States will have its hands full dealing with the impacts of climate change, many Latin American countries will face more severe impacts and will face them sooner, motivating increased migration across our borders. If the politics of immigration are difficult today, imagine a decade hence when millions of South Americans suddenly run out of the glacier water they depend on.
  • It is true that the United States is a rich and technologically advanced country. It is likely that we will adapt to climate change more or less successfully, but this process will be difficult and very expensive, particularly if the global community fails to limit the extent of climate change to a manageable level by agreeing to limit global greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead. What are the implications of U.S. efforts to hold climate impacts at bay here at home while poor countries look on helplessly? At a minimum, there will be immense international pressure for the United States to act to help those countries. But if we are devoting a larger proportion of our resources to coping at home, we will have a smaller proportion to offer for development elsewhere, adding additional migratory pressure on our own borders.

The point here is not to say that American troops should deploy to fight climate change. The point is that climate change must be considered in security planning and military procurement and that climate change will intensify some homeland security concerns that already exist. We have the capacity to deal with these issues, but we must be thinking about them and taking them seriously before we will deal with them. At the report’s launch in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building right next door to the White House, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Dr. Jane Lubchenco encapsulated the message so aptly that I will give her the last word here:

I think that much of the foot dragging in addressing climate change is a reflection of the perception that climate change is way down the road--it's in the future--and that it only affects remote parts of the planet. And this report demonstrates--provides the concrete scientific information that says unequivocally that climate change is happening now and it's happening in our own backyards and it affects the kinds of things people care about. So I think the dialog is changing. This is science that will inform policymaking. It doesn't dictate any particular solution, but it says this is important, we need to act sooner rather than later, it affects you and the things you care about.

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.). Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States