Dion-Kirschner: Climate change is a national security threat

Hannah Dion-Kirschner, Columnist

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President Donald Trump’s inauguration is alarming for anyone who sees climate change for what it is: a grave risk to the only known livable planet for humans.

Our planet is both astonishing and precious. To the environmentally concerned, the Earth’s exploitation through policy decisions that prioritize wealth over life is a foremost concern. Unfortunately, although images of shrinking forests and starving polar bears may arouse our sympathy, I don’t expect them to motivate change in Trump’s platform. There is, however, a less-acknowledged but vital reason that climate change should be Trump’s legislative priority: It poses an acute threat to our national security.

History has proven climate change can lead to political unrest. Stories from ancient history serve as proof that drought and famine have long been societal concerns. In the 1300s and subsequent centuries, the Little Ice Age contributed to the turmoil that characterized the Middle Ages, including famine, disease and political instability. These events resulted from natural climate cycles, but today we place ourselves in jeopardy through human-driven environmental changes.

In the most potent example for people today, the intense climate change driven drought in Syria contributed to conflicts and the country’s refugee crisis. As regions become inhospitable, many will be forced to migrate. Like in Syria, large-scale immigration to urban centers will heighten the likelihood of economic, cultural and political tensions. Given Trump’s concerns about unemployment, border security and “law and order,” the prospect of large-scale migration should concern his administration greatly. Syria’s case exemplifies the risks more countries will soon face if climate change continues unhindered: Droughts as well as hurricanes and large storms, heat waves, flooding and rising sea levels will all occur with greater frequency and severity. These natural disasters will cause extensive property damage, and, in the case of sea level rise, even loss of land area.

Human migration is far from the only security risk of a changing climate. The habitat ranges of other living things are already shifting — including disease-carrying insects and animals. Even a border wall can’t prevent the spread of tropical mosquitoes northward, each insect a potential carrier of Zika, malaria, dengue or West Nile virus. The habitat ranges and survival rates of deer ticks and the rodents that can carry them are also expected to expand, increasing the occurrence of Lyme disease; the effects of climate change have already been observed in cases of a mouse-carried disease called hantavirus. Outbreaks of these and other diseases will strain American medical care, threatening lives as much as a human conflict could.

American resource production will also suffer. Climbing temperatures will afflict livestock, boost populations of agricultural pests and heighten the potential for wildfires. Some argue that higher temperatures and CO2 levels will increase agricultural yields, but warming also brings on extreme climate events like storms, high nighttime temperatures and premature thaws, which have already decreased harvests of corn and tree fruits. Even more worryingly, high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have been shown to lower the nutrient content of grain crops, so even if yields remain constant, the food grown will not provide sufficient nourishment. Atmospheric carbon dioxide also dissolves into the ocean, making the water more acidic. The acidity disrupts marine food chains, leading to a scarcity of fish and shellfish.

Resulting national shortages of food, lumber and other natural resources will make the U.S. less healthy, secure and economically stable. Globally, international shortages will inevitably cause conflict and loss of life. Trump’s administration may or may not be concerned with the health of American forests, but he campaigned on the issue of national security. It should be clear that American security is at risk.

Trump takes office at a critical point in the fight against climate change. It is crucial that the momentum achieved in Paris last year be maintained to reduce emissions before time runs out. Environmentalists may insist on this for a multitude of reasons, from animal welfare to the cleanliness of the atmosphere. Regardless of whether he is moved by those causes, I urge the Trump administration to take to heart the dangers of climate change to American homes, health, agriculture and peace. Global changes in climate are predicted to result in hundreds of thousands of lives lost yearly, and American lives among them. This is an issue that imperils U.S. security more than any immigrant population or terrorist organization could.

President Trump, please act on climate change and secure America a safe future.

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is a junior in Weinberg and Bienen. She can be reached at hannahdionkirschner2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.