The Security Imperative of Stopping Climate Change: Reflections on the 2019 State of the Climate Report

By Dr. Marc Kodack

With the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) synthesis report delayed until sometime in 2022 and the next U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) slated for 2023, it’s important to look to other organizations for synthesized data on the current state of the climate. One such organization is the American Meteorological Society (AMS). AMS recently published their annual State of the Climate report, a global, multi-author effort that summarizes 2019’s regional and global climate trends. The picture is very concerning.

Global greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2019, with the average carbon dioxide concentration at 410 ppm, the highest concentration in 800,000 years. The concentration is a 2.5 ppm increase from 2018. Alpine glaciers continued to shrink in size for the 32nd straight year. Lakes in the northern hemisphere were covered seven-less days in ice than the average for the period 1981-2010. Ice loss continued to increase sea levels with an average global increase of 6.1 mm (0.2 in) since 2018. Droughts occurred in multiple places, and though the total land area in drought was not a record, it was on pace with climate change-driven drying trends. Annual precipitation was average, with individual cyclone events contributing large amounts of rain over smaller areas. Global land and ocean temperatures were 0.440-0.560C (0.240-0.310F) above the 1981-2010 average, with 2019 being the second warmest year on record.

For the Arctic, an area where a growing number of nations and their militaries have a serious interest, Alaska had its’ warmest year ever, whereas the rest of the Arctic had the second warmest temperatures on record. Surface air temperatures have doubled since the 1980s. The result is a further decrease in sea ice extent and thickness. The darker ocean water absorbs more heat, thus further decreasing the area of sea ice. On land, permafrost continued to melt releasing more carbon and methane into the atmosphere.

AMS’s State of the Climate report continues to provide data that shows that climate change trends identified in prior year reports continue, e.g., increases in greenhouse gas concentrations; increased temperatures, both in the air and in the ocean. When the next IPCC and the NCA final reports are available in three years, the trends reported by the AMS are highly likely to continue uninterrupted. If this situation persists, and significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions are not achieved in the next few years, the security consequences are likely to be “High-to-Catastrophic,” as the Center for Climate and Security’s National Security, Military and Intelligence Panel (NSMIP) warned earlier this year in its threat assessment of global climate change. The panel concluded:

“Even at scenarios of low warming, each region of the world will face severe risks to national and global security in the next three decades. Higher levels of warming will pose catastrophic, and likely irreversible, global security risks over the course of the 21st century.”

The challenge of climate change and its global effects on national, regional and global security will decrease the options we have to adapt to these effects in a manner that avoids mass death and globally disruptive instability. AMS’s State of the Climate Report is the latest warning in an increasingly urgent message: slow down the scale and pace of climate change now, or face potentially unmanageable threats to society.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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