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Climate Change And Global Security – Recipes for Disaster

October 15, 2009

by Tova Fuller & Lauren Zajac

By now, it is obvious to most that the effects of climate change on human health are manifold.  Heat waves themselves pose a danger, causing heat exhaustion, heat stroke and exacerbation of existing conditions.  In the long run, crop yields will decrease, and changing temperatures may alter the distribution of vector- and waterborne diseases.  Amongst the challenges brought on by climate change are droughts, food shortages and storms  Increased natural disasters would create relief emergencies.  The WHO estimates more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million “disability adjusted life years” (DALYs) occur EACH YEAR due to the diseases and malnutrition caused by climate change….and WHO-estimated annual deaths are estimated to double by 2030.

The indirect effects to health climate change has as a security threat are less obvious, even though even the Pentagon released a 2004 report that stated climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.”  Note that individually, climate change will not only affect physical but also mental health, increasing the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, violent behavior, individual panic and group hysteria.  On a greater scale, climate change might affect global tensions, acting as a “threat multiplier” for existent threats. Already particularly vulnerable areas include sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia who will see the worst of the flooding, water crises and food shortages brought on by climate change.  Land loss and flooding leads to environmental refugees as seen on a smaller scale from Hurricane Katrina.  These mass migrations may lead to heightened domestic, regional or international conflict and/or religious or racial tensions. Furthermore, extreme weather events may destroy or damage military bases.  Destabilized states may be vulnerable to not only domestic disorder but also threats such as terrorism and extremist groups.  As such, climate change and security are intimately linked.

One may also note that in the very worst case scenario, national security affects climate change.  Were, for example, the heightened tensions in South Asia to lead to even a limited, regional nuclear war, ash and aerosolized particles thrown into the air would result in a a layer of smoke in the stratosphere where it could not be washed out by rain, leading to nuclear winter.  Aside from tremendous local destruction near the epicenter and subsequent local health crises, global consequences would result from the drop in surface temperatures.  Nuclear winter would lead to a food shortages and starvation.  Coincident ozone depletion would lead to increased skin cancer and cataracts in mid-latitudes.

Climate change and nuclear war represent the two largest threats to human existence.  It is imperative that health professionals, who would be on the frontlines of any emergency and long term health response, act to prevent what would be enormous health disasters.  Medical students inherit this responsibility.  Medical students in the US are rising to the challenge to address climate change in a country that is a big contributor to the problem.  Through efforts like the Medical Alliance to Stop Global Warming (a collaborative campaign with the American Medical Student Association) and grassroots efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the health care industry, we are expanding our role as healers to help heal the planet and therefore improve health and quality of life in our global community.  Furthermore, students at IPPNW are bringing the issue of non-proliferation to the forefront of global discussion through ICAN and NWIP.  With a new, receptive administration in office in the United States, this represents a key moment in time for action on both issues — climate change and nuclear proliferation.  As I hope this article has convinced you, these two are not mutually exclusive, competing interests but rather complementary threats to human existence that should be tackled as such.  Our students are rising to the challenge.

To learn more about IPPNW students, please visit

To learn more about Student PSR (in the US), please visit

Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security – John M. Broder, NY Times

National Security And the Threat of Climate Change, A report by The CNA Corporation

Mills et al., 2008, “Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict,” PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.0710058105.

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