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Climate Change Entails More Than Changing Temperatures: Disease and Security Implications


By Leah Emanuel

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthew Vollrath, a journalism Master’s student at Stanford, has created a podcast entitled “Life in the Coronaverse.” This five-part series explores the linkages between the coronavirus and climate change, how we respond to both, the partisan divides impacting action, and more. In the third episode, published on May 29, Vollrath spoke with Stanford physician Desiree LaBeaud and Center for Climate and Security’s Senior Strategist Sherri Goodman about the global health and security impacts that climate change can have.

While there are no known direct links between climate change and COVID-19, LaBeaud said, we will like likely see an increase in the spread of vector-borne diseases as climate change intensifies. Vector-borne diseases are diseases that are transmitted to humans through insects or animals, such as Malaria and Zika. As temperatures increase, LaBeaud said, these species will be able to survive in countries and regions in which they previously could not. Since these places will have never seen diseases of this nature, the populations are particularly susceptible. This will result in outbreaks similar to that of COVID-19, which presents the risk of overwhelming the healthcare system. There is a lot of potential for a lot of future pandemics, LaBeaud said.

However, the spread of infectious diseases is far from the only peripheral impact of climate change. Following LaBeaud, Vollrath spoke with Goodman to understand the security impacts of climate change. Goodman spoke about how climate change is a “threat multiplier,” a phrase that was first used by Goodman and her colleagues in a 2007 report. This term directly references the military term “force multiplier,” which is something that makes weapon systems more effective. As a “threat multiplier,” climate change can drastically increase the power of a range of dangers. These threats, Goodman said, are already here. The largest United States naval base located in Norfolk, Virginia, is not only sinking, but is highly at risk for the next hurricane on the east coast. Additionally, the melting of the arctic has created a whole new avenue for geopolitical competition, with several countries already competing for control over this new sea route.

An especially alarming past impact, Goodman said, is the link between climate change and the Syrian conflict – an issue analyzed by the Center for Climate and Security’s Caitlin Werrell, Francesco Femia and Troy Sterberg beginning in 2012. This conflict was preceded by prolonged drought in Syria, considered to have been made more likely by climate change, which forced many rural citizens to migrate, including towards the cities. This placed strain on available food, water, and jobs, which contributed to civil unrest. Political forces then took advantage of this unrest, leading to the deadliest modern conflict. Goodman said that political forces or terrorist organizations taking advantage of vulnerable populations due to climate impacts will likely become a pattern. Recognizing these extreme effects, Goodman said the United States military continues to take climate change very seriously despite the slow action within other governmental sectors.

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