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WHY CLIMATE CHANGE MATTERS 

TO YOUR SECURITY, HEALTH & WEALTH
 

We are in the midst of many serious challenges today: COVID-19, inequality, geopolitical unrest, economic crisis, and climate change which on its own and interacting with the others poses both immediate and long-term threats to our security, health, and wealth.


Paul Andrew Mayewski
Professor/Director Climate Change Institute, University of Maine
Alexander More
Associate Professor of Environmental Health LIU, Research Associate at Harvard – Climate Change Institute
Charles H. Norchi
Benjamin Thompson Professor of Law, University of Maine School of Law

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1. Climate change is the leading global security threat

U.S. Army Sergeant Kornelia Rachwal gives a young Pakistani girl a drink of water. Image credit: Sergeant Mike Buytas, US Air Force. Public domain.

A World Wide Threat Assessment by the US Intelligence Community (2019) stated “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources [e.g. water], economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.” A United States Defense Science Board report concluded that global climate change impacts are vital to American security interests: they affect defense, diplomacy and economics.
 

The U.S. Department of Defense has underscored that climate change is a  driver and accelerant of instability.


The International Military Council for Climate and Security report indicates that climate change poses high risks to military missions. United Nations officials assert that climate change consequences reach the heart of the security agenda: flooding, disease and famine, resulting in migration on an unprecedented scale in regions of high tension; drought and crop-failure leading to intensified competition for food, water and energy in regions where resources are stretched to the limit; and economic disruptions that can generate conflict. The Council on Foreign Relations agrees with that assessment.
 

One of the largest global insurers, InsuranceSwiss, has calculated that one fifth of countries are at risk of collapse due to manmade climate change.

2. We are experiencing a “new climate reality” and humans are the major cause

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Click the graph for an interactive version.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides scientific information relevant to the causes and impacts of climate change. Their 2018 report represents the synthesis of more than 6000 peer-reviewed scientific articles and consensus reached by 195 countries. The report states that “ Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” 

 

In addition to IPCC reports there are numerous national level reports such as the US Government Fourth National Assessment Climate Science Special Report that focuses on climate change and impacts emphasizing the role of humanly-forced climate change in recent decades: 
 

Climate models predict even more significant increases in temperature as greenhouse gases continue to rise.

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Click the graph for an interactive version.

The chart above shows observed (black), model-simulated (gray), and model-projected (blue, green, orange, red) global mean temperature departures from a 1901-2000 climate baseline. The future projection curves are multi-model ensemble means from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project version 5 (CMIP5) for RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) experiments 2.6 (greenhouse-gas emissions peak and decline) - 8.5 (emissions continue unabated). These projections, which underpin seminal findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), represent a physically-based range of possible global temperature outcomes over the next several decades.

You can explore how manmade climate change is affecting temperature, rain, wind speed, sea ice and mean sea level pressure with Climate Reanalyzer, a free, interactive tool from the Climate Change Institute developed and maintained by Dr. Sean Birkel.

3. Climate change and its consequences require local knowledge

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Winds carry heat, moisture and pollution. Greenhouse gas warming is changing the pattern of the Jet Stream and surrounding atmospheric circulation patterns creating the dramatic changes we see globally in, for example: heat waves, droughts, and storms.

 

Even in the middle of winter darkness, the North Pole can experience temperatures above freezing because of the meandering pattern of the Jet Stream, the edge of the polar vortex, as the temperature gradient between the polar and mid-latitudes flattens from human-made greenhouse gas warming.

Recent warming is not evenly distributed over the planet as noted below when, for example, the difference in annual temperature (at 2m above the surface) between the period 2005-2018 compared to 1979-2004. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region due to “polar amplification” — as sea ice melts it changes the surface from white (reflecting incoming radiation) to dark ocean (absorbing radiation) and sea ice loss also allows ocean heat to be released. Oceans absorb 94% of the heat in the Earth's climate system, and as greenhouse gases trap more heat, oceans are getting warmer. The added heat threatens existing ecosystems and fisheries, and it bleaches and destroys coral reefs which are also suffering due to greenhouse gases seeping into the ocean and making it more acidic.

Climate change affects disproportionally women and people who are socio-economically disadvantaged. Local scientific as well as indigenous knowledge are key to finding solutions to future challenges.

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Log onto Climate Reanalyzer to investigate how weather and climate anywhere in the world has changed in recent decades (Credit: Dr. Sean Birkel, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine).

4. Climate can change suddenly

Figure from Mayewski et al., 2013.

Scientists discovered fast changes in climate as part of the reconstruction of the past 110,000 years of climate achieved in the early 1990s through the recovery of ice cores in central Greenland. 

 

Since then, we have experienced the first abrupt change in climate of the modern era due to the rapid rise of manmade greenhouse gases. 

 

As of 2007-2012 the eastern Arctic increased in temperature up to as much as +5 degrees Centigrade (+8 degrees Fahrenheit) resulting in a doubling of the length of the summer season in this region. This is nearly equivalent to the increase in temperature and speed of rise that occurred during the transition from the remnants of the last ice age into the milder period of the last 11,000 years.

5. Climate change causes severe health consequences

Image: Pixabay/Creative Commons License.

Human activity has created undeniable impacts on the chemistry of the atmosphere leading to increases in: temperature, greenhouse gases, acid rain, toxic metals (eg., lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury), organic acids, engineered chemicals, radioactivity, particulates and more. As a consequence human and ecosystem health has been degraded and resulting health complications for people include:

 

Human-caused global warming is expanding the habitat of well-known carriers of diseases, including insects and other animals.

Mosquitos (pictured Aedes aegypti) carrying tropical diseases like Zika, Dengue fever and Chikungunya viruses can now reach as far north as New York state, and even New England.
 

Zika infections of pregnant mothers causes microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with much smaller heads and brains. Dengue is a hemorrhagic fever that, when untreated, has a 20-50% death rate. 


These are just 3 diseases carried by the Aedes mosquito, whose range is expanding according to the CDC. The maps below show how much farther north disease-carrying mosquitoes can now reach due to climate exchange.

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Figure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of cases of Dengue hemorrhagic fever have increased 30 times in the last 50 years, in part due to global warming expanding the habitat of the mosquitoes that carry it.

Image: Pixabay/Creative Commons License.

Similarly, due to longer summers and warmer springs and falls, ticks (pictured) are active longer and produce more larvae, increasing their numbers. Ticks often carry lyme disease, and are thus causing outbreaks throughout New England and other regions of the US, as well as Central and Northern Europe.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heat and drought distress increases the likelihood of wildfires and the smoke resulting from them is extremely harmful to health (see more below, point 7).

Figure from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Human activity has caused each past pandemic to spread more easily, and the future ones will follow the same pattern. Deforestation, human-made climate change, the destruction of animal habitats for logging or other resource extraction will cause animals, insects, vectors of disease to migrate into human environments, causing new outbreaks.

6. Climate change adaptation & mitigation are creating enduring jobs, workforce development, and wealth

Image: Pixabay/Creative Commons License.

The renewable energy and energy efficiency sector employs three times more people in the United States than the fossil fuel industry as of 2020, and jobs continue to grow.
 

A shift toward a more sustainable economy is improving job quality and making the energy sector available to ever more people as a profession: climate monitoring, renewable energy plants, energy distribution, are all expanding employment for Americans and giving the US economy a leading edge in the global landscape.
 

According to the Harvard Business Review, companies are driven to  anticipate ways that climate change may affect their businesses, including supply-chain breakdowns, employee migrations, increases in disease, impact on reputation (multinational corporations may be blamed for climate-related environmental problems). According to Forbes, companies now evaluate their risks more broadly, identifying whether their operating  environments are susceptible to catastrophic, cascading climate-related disruption. The imperatives of climate change adaptation and mitigation are creating new and enduring jobs generating collective force development.

Monumental investments and efforts from visionary endeavors such as the Trillion Tree project or Project Drawdown, as well as more established impact-investing initiatives by Bloomberg, BlackRock, the Climate Group and Investable Oceans, are shifting our economy toward more sustainable model that also generates enduring and higher-paying jobs. This is quite simply the future of our economy.

7. Clean air laws improve human and ecosystem health, but require strict enforcement

Six and a half million people worldwide die of complications from air pollution each year according to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health as well as the WHO. That’s 6.5 million out of a total 9 million casualties due to pollution, more than two thirds. Air pollution is quite simply the most underrated and silent killer in our environment, and it is pervasive. 


Since the 1970s, clean air laws in Europe, the U.S. and China have reduced air pollution significantly.

Data: Colle Gnifetti ice core record, European Alps, highest resolution climate and pollution record in existence. Climate Change Institute, University of Maine.

Unfortunately, some recent administrations have relaxed clean-air standards in several regions, along with emission standards. The solution to climate change—reduced emissions and energy demand—is the same as the solution to clean air: adequate standards that reduce pollution, including greenhouse gases, to natural levels, as described by peer-reviewed scientific studies and not special interests. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly the atmosphere clears of pollutants, if human activity is reduced due to a crisis. The climate crisis is no less pressing than the pandemic, and the convergence of the two gives us a chance to turn calamity into an opportunity, and begin converting our economy to a more sustainable and energy efficient system.

National and global emission monitoring systems will allow the enforcement of pollution standards, while also strengthening and rendering more efficient existing cap-and-trade agreements. Businesses that don’t pollute will enjoy tax benefits as well as financial incentives provided by a more effective and rigorous carbon-trading system.

 

We know we can do this easily and benefit the economies and health of all nations, because we’ve already done so. The hole in the ozone layer of our atmosphere, discovered in 1982, has been significantly reduced by worldwide political agreements (Montreal Protocol) and changes in manufacturing.   

 

The Department of Defense as well as previous administrations have already identified these threats and proposed solutions with significant investments, which will bring new jobs and infuse new energy in our economy. 

8. Water is the new oil — the most precious resource on the planet

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In September 2020, there was abnormally high drought in 70% of the continental US. 

Climate-change-induced water scarcity is driving global conflict, as oil has in the 20th century. The worldwide migrant crisis, and several conflicts and crises around the world have been linked to extended droughts or abrupt climate change, caused by human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Water shortages are generating international disputes and civil disturbances.

As demand for water hits the limits of finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations that share transboundary freshwater reserves. Examples include the Syrian crisis, the Ethiopia-Egypt conflict over the Nile river, and water wars in Bolivia against the privatization of public water supplies. 

Climate change is causing extended droughts and water stress.

Climate change is causing extended droughts and water stress. A startling example is the long-term drought in California’s Central Valley, the source of 40% of American fruits and vegetables—entirely supported by artificial irrigation systems—and the site of devastating recent wildfires which threaten the nation’s food security. Wildfires that are a consequence of changes in the pathway of moisture bearing winds.

9. Renewable energy and lower demand are essential, but they require government support

Image: Pixabay/Creative Commons License.

Due to its specific regional advantages, the State of Maine has been dubbed the “The Saudi Arabia of wind power” by former Gov. King, and represents one of the hopeful success stories of renewable energy, creating new opportunities for energy security and independence from foreign oil, while also developing new, specialized jobs for Americans. 
 

Due to manmade global warming, multiple agencies and companies expect a 35% increase worldwide in energy demand, mostly due to increased air conditioning in the most populated areas of the developing world.

Innovation in Passive Housing technologies—particularly new, highly efficient heat-reflecting materials from the Daniels Family Sustainable Energy Foundation—are revolutionizing both the energy and construction industries, affording enormous savings and creating thousands of jobs in many regions of the world, such as Scandinavia.

 

The proportion of renewable energy is still not growing fast enough to replace fossil fuels, while the IEA projects a growth in energy demand between 98 and 227% in the next 20 years, especially in Asia and Africa. In order to address this enormous growth, increased savings in energy consumption must be part of the solution, and that implies scaling up already existing, energy efficient technologies, including passive and energy efficient construction, managed by tools made available by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

 

Just as enormous prosperity came from our transition from typewriters to computers, the energy-efficient fourth industrial revolution should be seen as an opportunity for renewed economic leadership and job creation, because it is.

10. Geoengineering will not replace mitigation, adaptation and conservation

Geoengineering solutions have been proposed for the last 60 years. Some of them—such as the injection of aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, iron fertilization, and cloud brightening—have already occurred because of natural events such as volcanic eruptions and erosion of landscapes. While cooling the planet temporarily, these options have severe side effects such as crop failures due to rain loaded with the same—usually toxic—chemicals that reflect the sunlight in the atmosphere. All of these technologies also tend to be energy-intensive and require ongoing efforts that may threaten the real solutions: energy-demand reduction, efficient construction and insulation, and the transition to a sustainable economy.

 

The recapture of greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere is more promising, but requires enormous efforts and investments to scale up to the point where it’s significant enough to make a difference. Currently, private efforts to reabsorb and store CO2 directly from the atmosphere amount to only 0.08% of global fossil fuel emissions.

 

The search for geoengineering solutions is still worth pursuing, despite drawbacks thus far, because it might very well provide other forms of information that can be effective in mitigation in general, which is ultimately the most realistic approach.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Paul Andrew Mayewski is an internationally acclaimed glaciologist, climate scientist and polar explorer who has led more than 60 expeditions throughout the remotest polar and high mountain regions of the planet. His scientific and exploration achievements have been recognized by numerous awards such as: the first-ever international Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research and the Explorers Club Lowell Thomas Medal. He has appeared many times in major media including: National Geographic, CBS 60 Minutes, and the Emmy Award Winning Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously.”

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Alexander F. More is a leading climate & health scientist and economic historian at Harvard, the Climate Change Institute & LIU. His research spans multiple continents and centuries, focusing on the impact of climate change on population and ecosystem health and the economy, as well as the human impact on climate and the environment. He has worked in the US Senate for Ted Kennedy and is actively involved in conservation efforts with multiple non-profit organizations. His work and interviews have been featured by CNN, The Washington Post, Forbes, CBS, ABC, Newsweek and many other news media worldwide.

Charles H. Norchi is the Benjamin Thompson Professor of Law in the University of Maine School of Law and Director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law. He teaches and researches international law, law of the sea, international human rights, law and science, and Arctic Law. He is co-President of the Arctic Futures Institute, Chair of the Admiralty and Maritime Law section of the Association of American Law Schools, Fellow of the Explorers Club, the Royal Geographic Society and the World Academy of Arts and Sciences and was Fulbright Arctic Scholar in Iceland.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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© Copyright 2020, the authors.