Climate Change, Hurricanes and US Security

Climate Change, Hurricanes and US Security
Hurricane Sandy [Image 2 of 2]” by DVIDSHUB is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The effects of climate change are being increasingly felt across the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently predicted a seventh consecutive ‘above average’ hurricane season for 2022. This comes after suggestions by scientists that previous above-average seasons had been exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-caused) climatic factors. In line with this evidence, US political actors frequently depict climate-exacerbated hurricanes as a threat to national security. However, this rhetoric is not culminating in a sufficient adaptive and mitigative policy response.

Hurricane trends and implications

A combined anthropogenic rise in Atlantic sea surface temperatures, and a projected northerly shift in hurricane trajectory – as exemplified by the recent unprecedented landfall of Hurricane Fiona as far North as Canada – have contributed to a notable observed increase in hurricane incidence in recent decades. Further, assuming a 2℃ warming scenario, experts project an increase in: general tropical cyclone intensity by between one and ten percent; an increase in tropical storm rainfall rates by 10-15%; and a greater number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, resulting in the increased severity of flooding and storm surges. This means that climate change poses a dual threat to the US whereby it increases the likelihood of extreme weather events and their destructive capacity.

These trends pose domestic threats to US security in their potential to exacerbate the already severe impacts of hurricane events. Economic data from the NOAA finds that, since 2000, there have been 37 tropical cyclones which have caused over US$1bn in damages (CPI-adjusted), with Hurricane Katrina being the most costly, at US$180bn. Such high costs are becoming more common due to the increasing economic value of vulnerable areas–what has now become a trillion-dollar coastal property market. These storms are becoming increasingly economically damaging for American homeowners in these areas, especially as many of them mistakenly believe that they are protected from hurricane flood damage by their homeowner’s insurance plans.

Further, the destruction or incapacitation of US critical infrastructure in vulnerable areas, as a result of stronger and more frequent hurricane events, could have a ‘debilitating impact’ on US security, public health, and safety. This refers to infrastructure relating to access to food, drinking water, healthcare, roads, sewage systems and energy systems. The incapacitation or destruction of such critical infrastructure can have a detrimental impact on the availability, integrity or delivery of essential services. This often disproportionately affects socioeconomically disadvantaged Americans who take longer to recover from the impacts of hurricanes than the rest of the population. Scenarios like these have contributed to an observed 2075 hurricane-related deaths in the US since 2000. 

US responses 

Framing hurricanes as a threat to US security is increasingly commonplace among political actors. Recently, the current administration claimed that it is prepared to respond to this year’s ‘tough’ hurricane season. Joe Biden further acknowledged the link between climate change and hurricane incidence, labelling it a “code red” danger that has become “everybody’s crisis”. Framing hurricanes as a national security issue could arguably be seen as a motivational tool for encouraging and subsequently maintaining the momentum needed for solid practical change.

However, it is apparent based on socioeconomic indicators that US policy remains insufficient in mitigating the impacts of climate-exacerbated hurricanes. Following Hurricane Katrina, a report by the US Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs highlighted consistent failures by government officials both to act swiftly to mitigate storm risks and to develop coordinated national responses to multiple extreme weather events. This sentiment continues today, despite the use of increasingly securitising language, with the Government Accountability Office warning that key federal agencies continue not to sufficiently aid state and local governments in preparations for hurricane season. 

Indeed, the recent results of the US midterm elections suggest that the interconnected effects of climate change and hurricane events does not hold much weight with the US public. These results included failures to pass many environmental initiatives, as exemplified in hurricane-prone Florida, where a bipartisan measure that would have made building flood-resistant homes cheaper, was voted down by the electorate. This highlights the trend of powerful rhetoric employed by powerful actors during storms or shortly thereafter, while practical policy-based consideration of disaster response mechanisms fall out of favour within policy-making institutions when hurricane seasons end.

A “lacklustre” response on the world stage

A failure to address issues of climate change and its resultant impacts on extreme hurricane events in the US not only means the likely continuation of adverse domestic impacts, but has more wide-reaching international consequences, as well. 

In an interconnected global economy, hurricane events have international economic implications, particularly for business and trade. While hurricane events tend not to have a major impact on stock markets, they do often cause substantial disruption to international aviation including air freight, with Hurricanes Irma and Maria causing $75-85m in financial losses. They also often force key US ports to close, impacting the international transportation of petroleum, diesel, and jet fuel. This has knock-on adverse consequences for global supply chains. These global trade risks are particularly pertinent within the context of ongoing global price shocks, specifically across energy resources. Further disruption to fuel supply chains, plus a reduction in domestic refining capacity, could cause further inflationary pressure, which has the potential to hurt consumers and businesses alike. 

Forecast

Risks such as these threaten the US or its key trading partners, which may encourage the adoption of stronger rhetoric and action on climate change by US representatives within international forums. During the COP27 Conference, President Biden depicted the USA as a “trustworthy, committed, global leader on climate” and highlighted the ‘devastating’ hurricanes that have battered the country in recent years. However, as with the domestic US response to climate change, skeptics have stressed that the US is making new climate policy commitments without fulfilling their old ones.  A recent Climate Change Performance Index ranks the US at a ‘very low’ 52, challenging US global climate leadership claims.

Despite evidence of anthropogenic factors contributing to more severe hurricane seasons, little has been done. This, coupled with the domestic response to climate change more generally, has raised questions about the US’ commitment to climate change goals–setting a poor example and a dangerous precedent. Thus, it is likely that the impacts of hurricanes in the US will continue to escalate as climatic forces continue to take hold, affecting not only domestic citizens (as the security rhetoric in the US has arguably proved to be quite hollow), but also international trade and the US’ global reputation as a leader on climate change.

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