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Six Reasons Climate Change Might be a National Emergency

March 1, 2019

Six Reasons Climate Change Might be a National Emergency

March 1, 2019

A recent Forbes article focuses on six reasons why climate change is not just important, but a national emergency.

Weather and climate disasters
Weather and climate disasters (source: NOAA/NCEI)

Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate, recently wrote a piece for Forbes that highlights some of the main reasons why climate change is real and must be addressed through federal legislation.

National Security

One of the main reasons why climate change is a national emergency is its threat to national security. A report by the Department of Defense on the effects of climate change tackled this topic and found that from reoccurring flooding to desertification, climate change's effects leave national infrastructure and military bases at great risk. The report explicitly stated, "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense...missions, operational plans, and installations."

Public Safety

The effects of climate change on public health are topics our blog has covered before here and here. Dr. Shepherd concurs with our blog posts, saying that "an array of public health concerns can be linked to climate change: increased heat-related illness, vector-borne diseases in places they have traditionally not thrived, water-borne disease(s) in flood waters, cardiovascular stress," and more. He also includes a quote from the Center of Disease's website: "Climate change, together with other natural and human-made health stressors, influences human health and disease in numerous ways. Some existing health threats will intensify and new health threats will emerge." Scientists agree that climate change's effects on health will only worsen as time progresses, and governmental policies need to reflect this issue's effect on public safety.

Sea Level Elevation

Scientists have recorded that the Earth's permafrost is thawing due to a rise in global temperatures, which is causing a rise in sea levels around the world. According to Dr. Shepherd's article, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that "nearly 40% of the U.S. population lived in counties bordering shorelines in 2010. By 2020, that number could be closer to 50%." The article also explains that as sea levels rise, so do the chances of flooding and hurricane-related storms. These types of environmental disasters cause infrastructure damage and increase the chances of water contamination. Stealth Power experienced this in October 2018 when heavy flooding in Austin, TX, was so high that the city had to issue a boil water notice. River levels had risen so high that the city's water treatment systems couldn't keep up with all of the excess water, and this was the first time in Austin's history that a notice of this kind has been issued for the entire system. However, it isn't only Austin that faced record-high floods. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that in 2017, cities around the U.S. experienced a record number of flooding events related to high tides, and more than a quarter of coastal locations tied or set new records for the number of flooding days.

Food Production and Supply

Another reason listed in Dr. Shepherd's piece is the increased challenges involved with food production and supply in relation to climate change. Just as an increase in flooding and desertification impacts public health and national security, it also impacts agriculture and food supply. The following chart explains how climate change adversely affects farming and food consumption:

Food and climate change (source: USGCRP)

To put it simply, as weather extremes increase in numbers annually, agricultural productivity will decrease and there will be higher chances of food spoilage and disrupted food distribution. "All production systems will be affected to some degrees by climate change," explains the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fish and seafood will also be affected. As water temperatures increase, the fish residing in them struggle to adjust. The rise in ocean waters' temperature has lead to "heat waves," phenomena that occur when water temperature rises so much in a designated area that a large population of its marine life dies off. One of those heat waves, lovingly referred to as "The Blob," occurred between 2013-2017 off the coast of Alaska and killed 70% of the Pacific cod population in the region. It still has lingering effects on the Pacific North's marine life. The 2018 National Climate Assessment Report concurs that marine life and fish farming are at risk: "Marine fisheries and fishing communities are at high risk from climate-driven changes in the distribution, timing, and productivity of fishery-related species."


The Department of Defense already touched on infrastructure's vulnerability in regards to climate change, but this vulnerability extends beyond national security. A 2014 National Climate Assessment recognized this risk and stated, "Sea level rise, storm surge, and heavy downpours, in combination with the pattern of continued development in coastal areas, are increasing damage to U.S. infrastructure including roads, buildings, and industrial facilities, and are also increasing risks to ports and coastal military installations. Flooding along rivers, lakes, and in cities following heavy downpours, prolonged rains, and rapid melting of snowpack is exceeding the limits of flood protection infrastructure designed for historical conditions. Extreme heat is damaging transportation infrastructures(s) such as roads, rail lines, and airport runways." They also explained that "essential infrastructure systems such as water, energy supply, and transportation will increasingly be compromised by interrelated climate change impacts. The nation’s economy, security, and culture all depend on the resilience of urban infrastructure systems."


The final and maybe most vital reason why climate change is a national emergency is water. As Dr.Shepherd explains, "We can't survive without water. Period. It is that simple." And water availability is under threat because of climate change. Certain U.S. regions are already struggling with water issues. California has experienced multiple droughts, and even Austin was experiencing a record-long drought until the excess flooding last Fall. EPA's website suggests that these issues will only get worse as global warming continues: "In many areas, climate change is likely to increase water demand while shrinking water supplies. This shifting balance would challenge water managers to simultaneously meet the needs of growing communities, sensitive ecosystems, farmers, ranchers, energy producers, and manufacturers. In some areas, water shortages will be less of a problem than increases in runoff, flooding, or sea level rise. These effects can reduce the quality of water and can damage the infrastructure that we use to transport and deliver water."These are just six reasons why climate change is real and needs to be addressed on a federal level. If left unchecked, global warming will severely affect us all. As Dr. Shepherd puts it: "I laid out six...societally-relevant threats to all of us. For us and our kids, this is a national emergency." And a national emergency deserves an appropriate federal response.

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