The threat of climate change is not new. Cold weather and drought have been causing risk for a long time, often linked to natural disasters, but new evidence shows that in some cases, these climate risks can exacerbate domestic or international issues and hurt international cooperation. Several US administrations have considered the research we published in State of Extreme Weather and Weather-Related Crises in US National Security Policy, but none has acted on our findings.
Climate change is not only an environmental issue – its impacts are also creating a threat to national security. The ability of some countries to handle extreme weather events is being stretched; by the end of this century, these nations are expected to be hit with hundreds of heat waves every summer and more severe periods of precipitation.
Extreme weather in Europe has already had a negative impact on US national security: more than 2,000 deaths were reported in US communities in 2010, the year the US experienced its worst winter since the 1950s.
Scenario Analysis: Extreme Weather, including Extreme Weather Events, in the 2019 National Security Strategy https://t.co/qF5X6Hlfwx — State Department (@StateDept) February 10, 2019
Rising temperatures in the US have contributed to wildfire disasters, including the 2019 Camp Fire in northern California, and wildfires from 2013 to 2018 across the western United States. Resilient water systems and communities can recover from floods and drought, but severe storms can further erode these assets.
Extreme weather also has made a serious impact on foreign relations. Responding to a heat wave in Greece in 2000, a US State Department employee at a Washington embassy collapsed on the sidewalk and was not breathing for 15 minutes. An ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital; his condition stabilized in less than five minutes, but it took eight times as long for the ambulance to leave the embassy compound.
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In 2015, both China and Japan reported an unusually high number of deaths from earthquakes, confirming what civil experts had already predicted – that climate change could contribute to disaster-related deaths and disruption of basic services in China and Japan.
Climate risk has also expanded to other countries, threatening US military stability. Researchers have estimated that higher temperatures during the 2020s will increase the water availability in Greenland and melt the Siberian permafrost, destabilizing seawater and flooding rivers and seas. In 2013, both North Korea and South Korea showed signs of destabilizing the isolated islands in the Yellow Sea. And the 2010 Russian heat wave was expected to increase the risk of nuclear accidents by creating a nuclear winter – which is exactly what happened in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Some of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet would accelerate global sea level rise. Climate scientists agree that lessening emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should help slow down the rate of this melting and limit sea level rise in the century ahead. However, the path to a low-carbon economy is a very expensive one – as the US President, Donald Trump, has shown.
Finally, as a result of natural and man-made climate change, deadly heat waves are predicted to become more frequent. In 2017, 89 people died in Siberia from a heat wave, bringing to 244 the number of deaths from heat in the last decade. In India, a heat wave in 2018 killed up to 37,000 people, hitting crop yields and putting even more people at risk. In 2015, more than 1,100 people died due to heat waves in Ukraine. In addition, in 2018, hundreds of people died from heavy rains and landslides in Pakistan, raising concerns about how to prevent displacement and humanitarian impacts.
Despite the threat of natural disasters, an overwhelming majority of Americans do not think the United States should be taking action on climate change. This election could change that.