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Climate change is major threat to readiness, expert says

September 23, 2015 (Photo Credit: Army)
Soldiers can expect a range ​of new and more complex ​risks with the progression of climate change ​— and not just getting too hot, an Army scientist said at a forum on health readiness.

Soldiers face ​heat-related injuries, but much more than that, ​Army science adviser Dr. Steven Cersovsky  told a panel on Tuesday. Climate change presents a major, multi-pronged threat to the military, ranging from ​increased disease ​to global instability that could push soldiers into a fight, he said.

Cersovksy is science advisor for the Army Public Health Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He spoke at a "Hot Topics" forum on health readiness in Arlington, Virginia,  presented by the Association of the U.S. Army. He described ​a variety of issues raised by climate change in a panel on "Enabling Health Readiness in a Complex World."

"We must understand what is coming and how these changes will affect our Army," Cersovsky said, according to an Army release. "And we must begin adapting now."

He said among the most obvious problems are heat-related injuries, ​already "unacceptably high in our formations."

More problems he expects from global warming: heat-related injuries, poor air quality, malaria, respiratory illnesses, behavioral health problems, food shortages, scarce water and regional instability.  

To keep soldiers safe in the future will require ​engineering, materiel ​and perhaps ​pharmaceutical solutions, he said.

Respiratory problems are likely to be on the rise as air quality ​worsens with climate change, dust and pollen increase and the ozone layer is degraded, Cersovsky said.​

Diseases such as ​malaria and various water-borne illnesses may ​emerge as increased threats in areas where more rain falls, while​ in other areas climate change may mean ​longer and more pronounced drought, leading to food shortages. 

Water is already so scarce in some places that it is "like gold," said another ​panel member, Navy Capt. Scott Cota, surgeon general for Special Operations Command​.

"All these changes are likely to spur further migrations to urban centers and cause a cycle of instability, especially in regions that are already stressed," Cersovsky said.

Desperation can feed radicalization as well as migration and social strife; all of which can result in violence and calls for military intervention.

"As a global force, we must be prepared to address the effects of climate change on our own readiness," Cersovsky said, "as well as respond to the needs of others as they experience the negative consequences."

Climate change in 'every region'

The statements at the forum represent an advancement in the government's discussion of the effects of climate change. 

​In the 1990s, the CIA was engaged in studying environmental shifts, according to a report published by  McClatchy, and in 1992 it started a program called Medea and ​shared classified environmental data with scientists.

But ​the topic — and critics say, the science — was ​pushed into the policy background as ​funding was stripped from national security elements studying impacts of climate change ​during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Later, a  2007 investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded that the administration "engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and misled policymakers about the dangers of global warming."

More recently, ​the Pentagon has taken the possibility of climate-based influences to national security threats more seriously. DoD's 2010 Quadrenniel Defense Review Report said: "Climate change and energy will play significant roles in shaping the future security environment ... Climate change will shape the operating environment, roles and missions that we undertake." That report pointed out that the Global Change Research Program (composed of 13 federal agencies) reported that climate-related changes are being observed "in every region of the world."

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