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What Is The Most Dangerous Impact Of Climate Change?

By Joe Romm

"What Is The Most Dangerous Impact Of Climate Change?"

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NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010. [Click to enlarge.]

What is the most dangerous climate change impact? That is a question Tom Friedman begins to get at in his must-read NY Times column, “WikiLeaks, Drought and Syria.” The piece is about a “WikiLeaks cable that brilliantly foreshadowed how environmental stresses would fuel the uprising” in Syria.

One of Friedman’s key arguments is that “Syria’s government couldn’t respond to a prolonged drought when there was a Syrian government. So imagine what could happen if Syria is faced by another drought after much of its infrastructure has been ravaged by civil war.” Thanks to human-caused climate change, that is all but inevitable.

The 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the State Department details the prescient warnings from Syria’s U.N. food and agriculture representative, Abdullah bin Yehia:

“Yehia told us that the Syrian minister of agriculture … stated publicly that economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’ What the U.N. is trying to combat through this appeal, Yehia says, is the potential for ‘social destruction’ that would accompany erosion of the agricultural industry in rural Syria. This social destruction would lead to political instability.”

The cable emerged as part of the research for Showtime’s landmark climate change TV series on the experiences and personal stories of people whose lives have been touched by climate change, Years Of Living Dangerously. Friedman is one of the correspondents, and he travels to Syria to witness first-hand the devastation wrought by warming-driven drought.

Friedman explains:

Yehia was prophetic. By 2010, roughly one million Syrian farmers, herders and their families were forced off the land into already overpopulated and underserved cities. These climate refugees were crowded together with one million Iraqi war refugees. The Assad regime failed to effectively help any of them, so when the Arab awakenings erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian democrats followed suit and quickly found many willing recruits from all those dislocated by the drought.

What is the most dangerous climate change impact? The worst direct impacts to humans from climate change will probably be Dust-Bowlification and extreme weather and the resulting food insecurity.

But the most physically dangerous impact to humans may well turn out to be how Dust-Bowlification combines with the other impacts to create conditions favorable for political instability and conflict (see “Syria Today Is A Preview Of Veterans Day, 2030“).

And remember, in the future, these impacts will not be occurring only intermittently in distant lands. On that point, Friedman quotes me near the end:

And, finally, consider this: “In the future, who will help a country like Syria when it gets devastated by its next drought if we are in a world where everyone is dealing with something like a Superstorm Sandy,” which alone cost the U.S. $60 billion to clean up? asks Joe Romm, founder of ClimateProgress.org.

What I meant is that if we don’t act to reverse carbon pollution emissions trends quickly, then, by mid-century, every country in the world will be dealing with epic catastrophes simultaneously on a regular basis — drought, sea level rise, heat waves, invasive species, acidification, and super storms (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts“).

This means the rich countries probably will not be offering much assistance to the poorer ones — or willing to intervene in foreign conflicts — since we’ll be suffering at the same time. When the West and Southwest are Dust-Bowlifying, the Southeast is heating up and suffering alternatively from brutal droughts and brutal floods, and the east coast is seeing a Sandy-level storm surge (or worse) every year, we’ll be devoting all our resources to our own troubles. Compassion fatigue will be replaced by compassion exhaustion.

What is the most dangerous climate change impact — drought, flooding, heat wave, or superstorm? All of them are — when they are occurring everywhere simultaneously year after year, decade after decade. The time to act was decades ago, but now is still infinitely better than later.

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