By Robert A. Vella
Back in the late 1960s, I started my lifelong study of climate change which at that time was simply known as the “greenhouse effect.” That’s a span of fifty years. In the beginning, only a small percentage of the population had even heard the term much less knew anything about it. In America, most people were preoccupied with the Vietnam War, civil rights, equal rights, the Watergate scandal, and the growing problem of industrial pollution which was contaminating cities and local communities across the nation. Meanwhile, the planet was slowly warming up.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a few scientists and activists began voicing their concerns about a potentially existential climate crisis coined as “global warming.” The public started to take notice, but the typical reaction was to ridicule them as “crackpots” and “worrywarts.” Political conservatives and industrialists rebuked the concern with claims that the Earth’s climate was too big for Mankind to affect, and Christian fundamentalists like the Moral Majority boasted that God was in control of the climate. Most Americans back then were preoccupied with the economy, oil shortages, Islamic extremism, the Cold War, and urban crime, as well as with solving the existing pollution problem and a new crisis threatening the planet’s protective ozone layer. Meanwhile, anthropogenic climate change was picking up speed.
By the mid-1990s, concerns over the climate became mainstream when governments around the world, and international agencies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), took notice and started acknowledging official scientific reports on the issue. This triggered a frenetic backlash among big business (e.g. the fossil fuel industry), conservative politicians who were becoming increasingly radicalized, and of course among hard-line religious institutions whose ideologies had merged almost seamlessly with their political allies. Since ridicule was no longer an effective tactic, the propagandist art of climate change denial was born to purposefully cloud the issue and instill doubt in the public consciousness. Meanwhile, global warming was beginning to cause perceptible extreme weather phenomena such as more powerful hurricanes, more frequent tornado outbreaks, and more intense heat waves.
Two decades later, in the mid 2010s, public opinion on climate change had finally shifted. The denialists had been marginalized not only because of the tremendous weight of scientific evidence, but also because a rapidly warming Earth was now obvious to most people. Extreme weather events had become common, coastal residents were seeing their homes and businesses damaged and destroyed by sea level rise, freshwater shortages were threatening regions like the American southwest, while commercial fishing and agricultural production suffered devastating losses. Those who opposed climate change mitigation efforts (e.g. the Paris Climate Accords) had to change tactics once again. They began trying to convince the public that global warming wasn’t really that bad, and that humanity would survive regardless of what might happen. At the same time, a new brand of nationalist and faux-populist leaders (e.g. Donald Trump) started to systematically undermine and dismantle any and all attempts to mitigate climate. Meanwhile, the rate of climate change accelerated so fast that it shocked the very scientists who most closely study it.
People in the know (i.e. government officials, and professional researchers) understand where this crisis is headed. Every year, the situation will get progressively worse. Every year, the societal stresses triggered by climate change will exert more and more pressure on government, industry, and the increasingly fragile cultural fabric which holds modern civilization together. Eventually, those stresses will reach a breaking point. This isn’t hyperbole. This is a mathematical certainty.
Last week, the temperature hit 108.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42.6 degrees Celsius) in Paris. That’s about the same latitude north as Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. Tour de France cyclists had to wear ice vests to try to stay in the race. Climate change isn’t funny anymore, folks, and everyone knows it. There are massive and violent anti-government protests occurring in disparate places like Moscow, Hong Kong, and Columbia right now. The specific circumstances of each are less important than the general hostility that’s building against the few who currently rule over the many. This real populist animosity is being directly or indirectly fueled by the tangible and intangible effects of climate change; and, that is an undeniable fact.
With study-after-study showing climate impacts from extreme weather to polar melt and sea level rise outstripping initial forecasts, negotiators have a fast-closing window to try to turn the aspirations agreed in Paris into meaningful outcomes.
[… but …]
Given the uncertain prospects for international cooperation to stabilize the climate on which life on earth depends, some are starting to steel themselves for the unraveling of the world they once knew.
“Either we radically transform human collective life by abandoning the use of fossil fuels or, more likely, climate change will bring about the end of global fossil-fuelled capitalist civilization,” wrote U.S. author Roy Scranton, in an April essay in MIT Technology Review.
“Revolution or collapse — in either case, the good life as we know it is no longer viable.”
- Europe is experiencing yet another heat wave: Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands have seen record-high temperatures. At least 10 people have died.
- In June, parts of France, Spain, and Germany also experienced record-breaking hot days. During that heat wave, 13 people died across Europe.
- Satellite images showed vast areas of the Arctic engulfed in flames this week.
- These events can be linked to the warmer temperatures and drier conditions that climate change brings.
The latest data from Brazilian satellites shows (link in Portuguese) that deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon is accelerating, leading experts to fear that it could be approaching a tipping point past which the rainforest can’t recover.
The loss amounts to more than three football fields a minute, and deforestation so far in July has hit 1,345 sq km (519 sq miles). That figure is a third higher than the previous one-month record since the nation’s Deter B satellite started monitoring deforestation in 2015, the Guardian reports.
Scientists fear that past a certain point of deforestation, the rainforest could be in jeopardy of degrading into a savannah. Tropical rainforests are critical storage sites for carbon dioxide, keeping the greenhouse gas in its solid carbon state, locked away in soils and trees. The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, making its protection critical to preventing runaway climate change.
… the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies issued a new report on the topic. CBS News quoted the organization’s president in describing heatwaves as “one of the deadliest natural hazards facing humanity,” which “will only become more serious and more widespread as the climate crisis continues.” The report, which provides guidance to cities for mitigating the myriad health and other risks associated with this trend, states that “More intense and frequent heatwaves are already occurring in many parts of the world,” and with them come serious health consequences.
Such challenges at the intersection of climate and health have been on the radar of the security community for some time. The U.S. Department of Defense’s January 2019 report on climate change effects on its missions and operations noted:
“Climate effects to the Department’s training and testing are manifested in an increased number of suspended/delayed/cancelled outdoor training/testing events and increased operational health surveillance and health and safety risks to the Department’s personnel.”
DoD and the U.S. intelligence community have long noted that climate change will change disease patterns, increase the frequency of heatwaves that threaten human health, and other issues. As natural disasters increase in frequency and intensity, governments around the world may also have increasing difficulty managing the consequent health effects.
Heatwaves are of growing concern for the potential security implications. A series of MIT studies of recent years indicate that under some emission scenarios, excessive heat could make parts of India, Pakistan, and China virtually uninhabitable on a year-round basis by the end of the century. Similar studies have found the same for parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, these regions already set record temperatures regularly and at times see high death rates as a result. Will people find ways to deal with the health and economic effects of these changes? Or will they emigrate, urbanize, or take other actions? What risks could this worsen for the nuclear-armed countries on this list?
On Wednesday, June 24, the House Budget Committee held a hearing on the costs the U.S. is facing due to climate change and the resulting expenses for our security enterprise.
Witnesses included Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, US Navy (Ret) and Rear Admiral David Titley, US Navy (Ret), both members of the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board. Witnesses focused on a wide range of climate change impacts on national security, coastal infrastructure, agriculture and public health.
On the security front, Admiral Titley provided a comprehensive opening summary of relevant national security implications, characterizing climate change as a readiness issue and stressing the threat that climate change poses to international stability.
According to a recent story in ABC News Australia, internal briefing notes from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in 2018 show an Aussie military with significant concerns about how climate change will impact security in the region. From the article:
One document warns that climate change could “exacerbate the potential for conflict” and contribute to “state fragility and the undermining of economic development in our immediate region”.
Britain’s refusal to go along with the Trump administration’s fiery approach to recent Iranian aggression has experts and lawmakers concerned about the state of the “special relationship” between two historically close allies.
[Ilan] Goldenberg [a former State Department official who is now a Middle East and Iran expert with Center for a New American Security], who was in London earlier this week and spoke to U.S. and British government officials firsthand, said there is a fear among allies in partnering with the United States to counter Iranian aggression. The worry, he said, was “of getting dragged into military conflict because of the United States.” [clarification by The Secular Jurist]