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The Security Threat of Extreme Heat

NWS-NOAA_Omega_wind_heatwave_June_28-July_4_2015By Christine Parthemore

Heatwaves are all over the news this week. Forecasts indicate that two-thirds of the United States will experience a severe heatwave this weekend

This comes days after 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?

Unlike for many threats, these security risks are known knowns. For years, experts worldwide have warned of myriad health effects of climate change—and they are already manifesting. Moreover, there are countless current and emerging technologies and tools across the health and climate fields to increase preparedness, and benefits to be realized by advancing cooperation between the health and climate security communities. This week’s heatwaves and reports of their future in a climate-changed world highlight the critical need for such work.


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