Climate change's challenge to homeland security

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Weather and climate change aren't synonymous. Nonetheless, as I await heavy rains and gusting winds from Hurricane Sandy to knock out my subdivision's power in the coming days, it seems like a fine moment to comment that weather has been acting up lately.

This past summer, more than half the country was in drought--some of that in areas the previous summer that were flooded by the Missouri River. 2011 was also a record year for wildfires.

Arctic sea ice was also at a record low this past September, and the inevitability of an ice-free summer Arctic in the coming decades already has led the private sector to gear up for resource exploitation in that previously inaccessible area.

In short, weather recently looks more unpredictable, and more extreme. Such are the hallmarks of climate change--which is, of course, the underlying story of our weather.

That climate change is occurring, and is human caused, isn't a matter of scientific debate. Unfortunately, it somehow has become a matter of political debate, the underlying story there being a climate of paranoia, willful ignorance and denial. Which is unfortunate, because global warming is becoming the most significant homeland security issue of our time, terrorism ultimately proving to be a controllable threat of diminishing importance.

Scientists from 13 departments and agencies in a 2009 report (.pdf) note that climate change will have the effect of limiting access to scarce resources and increasing incidents of damaging weather events, creating direct consequences for the U.S. economy and security.

The densely populated coasts of the Northeast "face substantial increases in the extent and frequency of storm surge, coastal flooding, erosion, property damage, and loss of wetlands," it notes. The Southeast faces the problem of hurricanes of increasingly destructive potential while the Midwest had already by 2009 experienced two record-breaking floods between then and 1994. Warming in the Southwest outpaces rises in the global average in some areas, threatening the water supply that is the lifeblood of that arid area. Water supply in the Northwest, too, is under threat by climate change.

American society will be deeply challenged by climate change, and the time to prepare for it is clearly at hand; it is a homeland security imperative. Those who would turn the discussion away from the best ways to mitigate it back to the false debate over its existence do a disservice to this country. I'll be thinking about them during the darkness of the coming days; as a nation in the coming decades, we'll no doubt have plenty of like opportunities to ponder how climate-change deniers prevented a robust response to global warming. - Dave