The prestigious medical journal The Lancet is out with a bombshell of a climate change report. It’s the first major attempt to synthesize climate data with human health impacts. Considering the complexity of that task, experts in the field have raised questions about the report’s methodology. However, a look at the US Army illustrates the essential truth behind the report: climate change is a public health concern because it affects human health, and is changing the way humans live and work.
About the new Lancet climate change report
The new report comes under an initiative of The Lancet that began last year, called The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change. The inaugural 2016 report set the strategic direction for a series of annual reports.
The 2017 report surveys 40 indicators to reach a network of three conclusions:
First, climate change is already affecting global health, with a disproportionate effect on “those who are most vulnerable, and people in low- and middle-income countries.”
Second, there is an urgent need to make up for lost time, and accelerate responsive policies:
The delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardised human life and livelihoods.
Third, and somewhat more optimistically, the report notes that global policies have been trending in a more responsive direction in recent years yielding “immediate and tangible benefits for human health, cleaning up polluted air, ensuring healthier diets, and encouraging physical activity.”
The critics weigh in
Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic provides a thorough rundown of the report, noting that “climate change is already afflicting human health worldwide, exposing tens of millions of elderly people to excess heat while possibly reducing the ability of hundreds of millions of workers to do their jobs.”
The first part of that summing up is a relatively simple matter of correlating medical records with climate data. That part of the report is largely beyond dispute.
The new report is also consistent with another Lancet report that correlates other health threats with climate change, such as an extended allergy season and an increase in insect-borne infectious diseases.
However, as Meyer points out, measuring the impact on human activity is a much more complex endeavor.
Meyer reports that academic economists have, for example, questioned The Lancet’s finding on labor capacity:
…The Lancet report makes an eye-popping assertion about the global economy, arguing that climate change has already significantly harmed labor capacity around the world. Between 2015 and 2016—which are the second- and first-hottest years ever recorded—it argues that “outdoor-labor capacity” fell by 2 percent. Since the year 2000, outdoor-labor capacity has fallen by 5.3 percent overall, it claims.
The problem, according to Meyer’s sources, is that the conclusion is not based on the kind of metrics normally used by economists. It is based on a small number of experiments carried out by U.S. military and industrial sources, which attempted to measure the productivity of soldiers under different temperatures.
Speaking of the U.S. military…
Although Republican leadership in Congress has been forcefully opposed to climate action in the U.S., the defense community has long recognized climate change as a significant threat to national security.
Climate change has fostered regional strife and a mounting series of humanitarian crises that are already affecting U.S. military readiness and force effectiveness. That includes rising sea levels, which are already threatening coastal military infrastructure including the important naval station at Norfolk, Virginia.
Another impact concerns the ability of the U.S. military to carry out effective training routines — in essence, its ability to do its job.
Last year the U.S. Army published an article on just that topic, under the title “Climate change affecting Army training.”
Army Captain Todd Lopez lays out the general picture:
For the Big Green Machine — America’s Army — climate change, efforts to prevent it, or to at least adapt to it are about more than saving Mother Earth or even the whales. It’s about training, training space, how the Army fights, how often the Army will be called upon to fight in the future, and where.
Specifically, Lopez focuses on the need for training grounds that ready U.S. Soldiers for deployment in areas like Afghanistan and Iraq. One such facility, at Fort Irwin, California, was recently wiped out by an extreme weather event associated with climate change — three years of drought followed by flash flooding:
“…Much of [the facility] was destroyed. We couldn’t use those ranges for training. And that’s a unique asset in the Army. It affected the training cycle. And there was a significant cost to fix that.”
Lopez also cites flooding, melting permafrost and erosion at other Army training facilities around the country.
Aside from extreme weather events, another area of concern is the health effects of air quality and heat on Soldiers. The U.S. Army has developed specific heat categories under which training must be curtailed, and those episodes are increasing dramatically.
In addition, Lopez notes that the Defense Department’s supply chain can be affected by rising sea levels and extreme weather events that disrupt the global economy, with a consequent impact on training and readiness.
The Army’s own manufacturing facilities are also vulnerable to water resource issues related to climate change.
Regardless of questions over The Lancet’s methodology, climate change is already affecting the way U.S. soldiers work.