Professor Calls for Action on Climate Change

As extreme weather dominates the headlines, a recent report co-authored by environmental science professor Michael B. McElroy suggests that climate change is a threat to national security.

The report, co-authored by McElroy and D. James Baker, a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examines the short-term implications of climate change on the existing infrastructure and the impact of a polarized political dialogue on national security overall.

“If the richest country in the world regards the climate issue as the matter of a vote, a left-wing or right-wing vote, and is not prepared to talk about the facts, then we are not prepared to provide the leadership this world deserves,” McElroy said about environmental policy disagreements among lawmakers.

The other issue highlighted in the report is the government’s lack of preparedness for severe weather conditions.

In the report, New York governor Andrew Cuomo emphasized the importance of having reliable infrastructure when Hurricane Sandy left significant damage to the Eastern seaboard last October.

“We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns,” Cuomo said in the report. “We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.”

The publication also described the increase in high-impact weather conditions and unusual climate phenomena, saying “their extent is worldwide, affecting people where they live, where they draw upon fresh water resources, and where they grow food.”

“In the case of New York City, did anyone really predict that a storm surge of more than 20 feet could envelop lower Manhattan?” McElroy said.

Part of the report focuses on the Hadley Circulation, a weather system in which air travels north after losing much of its moisture to precipitation in tropical areas.

“What seems to be happening in recent years is that the input of new energy to the climate system due to what we are doing by burning fossil fuels, in particular, is energizing the system,” McElroy said. “It is more energetic than the tropics, so it is going higher and further north than it normally does.”

The result of this new energy input is an extension of the desert environment, which could potentially envelop Spain, Italy, Greece, Israel, and the Mid-Western United States.

“I’m hoping that by what I do at Harvard—talking about this issue with undergraduates who are going to be policy leaders—we can make a difference,” McElroy said. “Scientific literacy is important for people who are going to be Economics, English, or whatever concentrators. We all need to have an understanding of the world, where it came from, and where we are going.”

—Staff writer Indrani G. Das can be reached at idas@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @IndraniGDas.

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