Understanding the implications of climate change is a tricky business at best, as each year we see how far and wide it’s scope has grown as we continue researching: the further we study and investigate, the more we begin to realise just how little we know and how complex our planet’s climate really is.
The report was co-authored by Michael McElroy, the Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard University, and D. James Baker, a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is the result of the authors’ involvement with Medea, a group of scientists who support the US government by examining declassified national security data useful for scientific inquiry.
McElroy and Baker connect global climate change with extreme weather and national security, and believe that during the next decade climate change could have far-reaching effects on everything from food, water, and energy supplies to critical infrastructure and economic security.
“Over the last century, the trend has been toward urbanization — to concentrate people in smaller areas,” McElroy said. “We’ve built an infrastructure — whether it’s where we build our homes or where we put our roads and bridges — that fits with that trend. If the weather pattern suddenly changes in a serious way, it could create very large problems. Bridges may be in the wrong place, or sea walls may not be high enough.”
However, the hypothetical effects climate change exerts on infrastructure is only the beginning of the security concerns.
Open the scale to an international one, and the report points to recent events like the flooding in Pakistan and drought in eastern Africa. Both events may be tied to global climate change, and the authors believe that how the United States responds to these situations — and situations like them — could affect security.
“By recognizing the immediacy of these risks, the US can enhance its own security and help other countries do a better job of preparing for and coping with near-term climate extremes,” Baker said.
The authors also believe that climate change could have long-lasting influences in the political sphere. McElroy points to the Arab Spring uprisings, asking the question whether rising food prices as a result of climate change impacted the situation; or whether the drought conditions currently being experienced in northern Mexico have contributed to political instability and a rise in the drug trafficking trade.
“We don’t have definitive answers, but our report raises these questions, because what we are saying is that these conditions are likely to be more normal than they were in the past,” McElroy said.
“There are also questions related to sea-level rise. The conventional wisdom is that sea level is rising by a small amount, but observations show it’s rising about twice as fast as the models suggested. Could it actually go up by a large amount in a short period? I don’t think you can rule that out.”
McElroy and Baker also believe that weather patterns are already changing:
“One novel thing we did was to do an analysis of just how unusual the recent weather has been, based on the longest historical database we have,” McElroy said. “The net conclusion is that weather is changing dramatically in specific regions, and the nature of the change is that we’re seeing more record high temperatures and many, many fewer low-temperature records.”
McElroy in commenting on the report also brought to light the atmospheric circulation pattern ‘the Hadley circulation’ in which warm tropical air rises and causes tropical rains. As the air continues to move poleward, it descends and causes the drier air to heat up. The regions that receive this hot, dry air are typically dominated by desert. This is a definite problem if these arid regions are expanding.
“The observational data suggest that the Hadley circulation has expanded by several degrees in latitude,” McElroy said. “That’s a big deal, because if you shift where deserts are by just a few degrees, you’re talking about moving the southwestern desert into the grain-producing region of the country, or moving the Sahara into southern Europe.”
“I would be reluctant to say that our report is the last word on short-term climate change,” McElroy said. “Climate change is a moving target. We’ve done an honest, useful assessment of the state of play today, but we will need more information and more hard work to get it right. One of the recommendations in our report is the need for a serious investment in measurement and observation. It’s really important to keep doing that, otherwise we’re going to be flying blind.”
“The bottom line is that our national security depends on our ability to sustain and augment our scientific and technical capacity to monitor unfolding events and forewarn of important changes,” Baker said. “The imminent increase in extreme events will affect water availability, energy use, food distribution, and critical infrastructure — all elements of both domestic and international security.”
Understandably, McElroy and Baker are not the first to look at the far-reaching implications of climate change. President Obama’s inclusion of climate change as such a high priority in his most recent State of the Union address is proof that the issue is growing in importance, and the far-reaching impacts are beginning to be highlighted; finally brought to light by mainstream scientists and media outlets.