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What’s at Stake

It is difficult to identify the stakes involved with climate change without sounding overly dramatic. Essentially, though, climate change puts virtually every aspect of the life we know at risk. Depending on what we do as a nation and as a global society, climate change will continue for decades and possibly centuries. The changes will be more disruptive to human societies than anything previously experienced. The impact of climate change depends critically on how much we limit its magnitude and on the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of humans and the natural world, which can vary widely. Here’s what we risk:

Economic and Social Stability

Climate change will affect every local community in the US, and some communities have already felt its effects. The diverse impacts of climate change will affect jobs, the availability of foods we buy at the grocery store or obtain by hunting and fishing, the cost and even the availability of electricity, and much more. The potential for large-scale migrations of people within the country, as well as from other countries, is quite real as people retreat from areas prone to wildfires and floods and ongoing shortages of essential goods and services.

UBS, the wealth management company, focused on climate change as early as 2007 and has followed up with a regular series of financially-targeted reports identifying areas of investment risk and opportunity. In 2016, UBS published a report that looked at the risks to the middle class, whose wealth is concentrated in cities around the world. UBS ranked the cities for their exposure to climate change risk by focusing on each city’s annual average flood loss per city economic output (the city’s GDP):

  • New Orleans was ranked second in the world for its risk exposure,
  • Two Florida cities, Miami and Tampa, ranked fifth and seventh,
  • Virginia Beach and Boston made the top 15, and
  • Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New York made it eight American cities in the top 20.

In 2008, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), representing the industry that is responsible for damages created by coastal flooding and storms, published a formal acknowledgement of the risks posed by climate change, and followed up in 2010 with its first annual Insurer Climate Risk Disclosure Survey designed to help insurers prepare to deal with losses related to climate change events. More recently, NAIC reports that the reinsurer, Munich Re, estimates that weather related losses in the US have increased nearly four-fold since 1980. In its preparation for the 2015 Paris Conference on Climate Change, Munich Re reported on efforts by the German government to establish insurance mechanisms to provide coverage for anticipated climate-related risks and, while applauding such efforts, acknowledged, “There is currently no sign of a ‘silver bullet’.”

National Security

The Department of Defense has issued a series of reports that identify concerns related to climate change. In its 2010 Quadrennial Report, DoD stated that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” The report points out that climate change-related impacts were already being observed around the world and that intelligence analyses suggested that these changes could lead to further international destabilization.

In its 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, DoD warned that without mitigation and adaptation measures, it anticipates a greater need for humanitarian and military action around the world. DoD believes that population centers will experience a steady increase in competition for food, water, and other natural resources, which could also lead to greater human migration and more armed conflicts that may or may not involve US personnel and leadership.

DoD has also expressed concern over the impact of climate change on military facilities and capabilities, noting in particular that, in 2008, the National Intelligence Council determined that more than 30 US military installations faced risks from sea level rise.

Food and Water Resources

US agriculture is vulnerable to climate change. Crops are especially sensitive to heat, drought, and floods. As local temperatures rise and water supplies diminish, crop production will shift north.

The seven-year drought that recently ended in California provides insight into the balancing act required to manage dwindling supplies of water. In California, water use had to be brokered among all citizens for drinking, bathing, and cooking, and for food growers and wineries throughout the state. California agricultural output accounts for 12.5% of all US output. In May 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed two pieces of climate change legislation that set permanent targets for indoor and outdoor water consumption.

In the southeast, climate change is expected to increase stress over water rights. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are currently battling through the courts over who gets to use the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin. According to the National Climate Assessment, “Under future climate change, this basin is likely to experience more severe water supply shortages, more frequent emptying of reservoirs, violation of environmental flow requirements (with possible impacts to fisheries at the mouth of the Apalachicola), less energy generation, and more competition for remaining water.” The authors of this section of the report include some climate change adaptation options that should be explored.

Public Health

Climate change is expected to have several adverse impacts on human health. Some people will be more affected than others depending on such factors as where they live; their age, health status, income, and occupation; and how they go about their day to day lives. Climate change will affect specific regions and segments of society differently. The impacts will vary according to the status of public health systems, factors such as wealth and lifestyle, and vulnerable populations in marginalized communities who currently have the least capacity to adapt. People with existing health problems such as heart disease and diabetes are particularly at risk because drugs used to treat the disease or the disease itself increase sensitivity to heat stress. Currently more than 28 million Americans have heart disease and more than 100 million have diabetes or prediabetes.

While the following health issues will be felt more in poorer countries, we should expect to experience them here in the US as well, even if it is to a lesser extent. Specifically, climate change is expected to result in

  • More heat-related deaths and illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations like the elderly and the very young.
  • Increased deaths and injuries from more frequent wildfires.
  • More frequent asthma attacks in people who suffer from asthma, likely due to a longer growing season for ragweed and other pollens.
  • Increased number of incidents of food-borne and water-borne diseases, and possibly vector-borne diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease.
Climate change impacts

Source: Centers for Disease Control

Related Problems: National Debt, Infrastructure, Immigration

Contributors: George Linzer

Reviewed by Lisa Palmer

Published: November 5, 2019

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